on 13 May 2003
In this book, Mary Hamer introduces new perspectives on incest that take it out of the realm of the abnormal and the wholly distasteful and place it within the centre of ordinary social life. The timing of this book is more than appropriate, with the recent attention towards Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse, and what may be society's increasing tolerance and acceptance of the crossing of sexual boundaries. Hamer draws attention to the different kinds of incest that fall under this umbrella term, that are not solely based on restrictions due to blood ties or sexual abuse in its most horrific forms. Questioning the contradiction between the taboo on incest and its widespread practice, she connects her own work with that of Ian Suttie, the early British psychoanalyst, investigating what she sees as the main problem - a taboo in our world on tenderness, rather than on incest. The book is divided into two parts, the first explaining Hamer's framework and introducing the work of writers and analysts on incest and related aspects, the second bringing in movies and books - works of art - as supporting evidence for her views.
Part One, On Knowing and Not Wanting to Know, focuses on society's blindness to the prevalence of incest and the emotional and social conditions that give rise to it. Hamer explains how Sigmund Freud, through re-introducing the Greek myth of Oedipus, brought to our attention the shame and the 'choosing not to see' that reflect our western society, bringing in as an example the strained family relationships of her earlier family life. Reflecting on Suttie's views, Hamer agrees that it is the taboo on tenderness, rather than against incest, which structures individuals' inner world and the outer one in which we live in society. Thus, she argues in this book, there are crucial links between the compulsive behaviour of those who perform acts of sexual abuse and the forced separation of children from their mothers, fathers, and siblings.
Continuing on with the theme 'knowing and not wanting to know', the author draws on the work of film-maker Louis Malle in Murmur of the Heart, and on the case of Father James Porter, the Catholic priest charged with sexual abuse in Massachusetts. In both of these situations, what is at stake, says Hamer, is the accomplishment of the transition of the boys into manhood, and what often goes unexamined, besides the system of education, is masculinity itself. Other relationships examined in Part One include film-maker Jennifer Montgomery's, with her professor, and writer Sappho Durrell's relationship with her father. Noting the contributions of psychoanalyists Sandor Ferenczi and Sigmund Freud to knowledge about incest, intimacy, and the treatment of patients, Hamer then turns to two London analysts, Valerie Sinason and Estela Welldon, for recent developments in doing therapy.
Part Two, On Being Reminded, begins with Hamer explaining the aims of the writers and film-makers whose work is presented here. None of them, she says, started out with the aim of presenting a study of sexual abuse. Rather, they were attempting to explain central aspects - painful aspects - of their own identities. They were attempting to discover how it had been created by that particular culture and within their families. Hamer's analysis of the films Suddenly Last Summer (1959) Through the Glass Darkly (1961), and Lolita (1962 and 1997), relate to ideas discussed in the first part of the book. In the introduction to the book she says, "In movies I find a picture of the world which is put together using the first language of the psyche, the language of images" (p. 5). Here, also, she gives her readings of the novels Bluest Eye (by Toni Morrison), God of Small Things (by Arundhati Roy), and Lolita (by Vladimir Nabokov). Hamer explores the stories of individual experiences with the aim of linking them with the structures of everyday life. She questions the inconsistency between the incest taboo and what is happening in daily life world-wide, using the work of artists to state the problem - not to solve it, but to illustrate it and explain it - with the aim of forming an understanding for the reader.
In her conclusion, Hamer suggests that separateness is the means by which adult sexuality is formed. The church, the law, and schools, she claims, are all part of the social system through which this formation takes place. The books, films, and true accounts that she has analysed to explore sexual abuse and incest draw to our attention the need to question the social order itself rather than just putting the blame on individuals who have abused, she says, or on the system which fails to protect children. She sees the first step as coming to the recognition that abuse is not an aberration but the consequence of the social order as it is now, suggesting that "Closing up the gap between sexuality and the tenderness that is children's due, these images might well be viewed as mute reminders, taking each of us back to a connection that has all but been forgotten, the connection between our loss of the tenderness we knew as children and our fears as adults" (pp.177, 178). The author's aim in writing this book has been towards greater understanding, and there is every indication that this book would be invaluable for readers wanting to broaden their perspectives. Hamer makes this book accessible for readers willing to meet the challenge of confronting old ways of thinking and consider new models of thought about incest and the social order.
This text refers to the paperback edition.