This review contains quotes and spoilers from the book.
Trigger warning: The contents of this book review may include the use of vulgar or explicit language which concerns themes of child molestation, child abuse, rape, and incest.
A story as disturbing as its title suggests, The Incest Diary is probably one of the most lyrical approaches to childhood abuse I’ve read to date. In just 132 pages of tightly-wound vignettes—each evoking a new horror scene recounted by one daughter’s sexually abusive relationship with the very man who sired her—the speaker, whose identity remains concealed, tells a shocking story of a family’s unfortunate incestuous legacy and the crushing trauma that survives it.
I know what you’re thinking: disgusting.
You’re absolutely correct, this book is horrible. Perhaps, however, not in the same way as I see it. When I reached for this book last night, I did not anticipate I’d burn through nearly half the pages in under an hour. The author’s writing is deceptive in that way; these pages are rife with infectious and alarming memories as unforgiving and stubborn as quicksand. There’s a certain shred of guilt that follows laying such a story like this to rest without having finished it first. I tried, however, my brain gave in.
What’s peculiar about The Incest Diary, is, whatever semblance of sympathy I had for the author in those opening passages diminished just as quickly as it started. Actually, I don’t think the author’s intention was to solicit pity or acceptance and maybe that is the flare of it. After all, at its nucleus, it is a diary, and we make no apologies for our private thoughts. So why should we expect anything less from our speaker? In some uncomfortable way, I respected that: her careless bravado, calling to mind the unrelenting will of a Cersei Lannister.
The author speaks so highly of her father, so lavishly that it will make you wrench at least once or twice while reading. But somewhere between the lines is something sickly poetic, bleeding with meaning and other gory things.
“My father wanted to fuck me, and sometimes he wanted to kill me. Sometimes it was both. I don’t know how many times he cut me with a knife. Sometimes he was threatening to kill me with it, other times he cut inside my pussy. Was he trying to circumcise me? Maybe he was trying to cut my pleasure out, to remove his pleasure.”
— excerpt from The Incest Diary
Despite the abuse, what really disheartened me was the way in which she talked about craving her father’s advances. A poetic passage is completely obliterated with unnecessary bawdy descriptors (“pussy” and “cunt”) and it all feels just so unwarranted at times. A lot of the time, really. Like she’s trying to disturb you.
She even describes the pleasures of incest in a way that makes me think, even in her more coherent, teenage years, that somehow she became complicit in the act. (Or manipulated into consent? I didn’t know how exactly to metabolize that: her enthusiasm in wanting her father in such a way.
“A mouse who lives in a warm nest where it is well fed will venture out and then, when frightened, rapidly return to its home. A mouse who has an uncomfortable nest—where it experiences pain and lack of food—when out of its nest in a place with warmth and food, and then suddenly frightened, will also return home, just like the other mouse. Experiments with other animals proved the same—when an animal is scared, it goes home, no matter how terrifying home is.”
— excerpt from The Incest Diary
Like this, there is poetry in here I couldn’t deny. At first, the author’s logic is razor-sharp, dangerous and superb. Until it wasn’t.
Something that crippled my reading of this book was the lack of knowing how old she was when she wrote this. Which brought me back to the idea that might actually be a literal “diary” of her experiences with incest. Because everything is written in vignettes, it’s hard to tell how these events were assembled. There’s really no order to this book at all: one passage will talk about her being molested as a child, again in her twenties, and then in her teen years. Rinse and repeat. It’s a formula all too convoluted.
She also discusses a lot about how her father’s attempted to kill her more than once in between these stints. He would sometimes bound and gag her, mutilates her, takes her forcibly. She explains how she allowed these things to happen as a means to save her own life, as well as her father’s. I was able to understand this. Her father was a troubled man, not a drunkard surprisingly, but he, too, had been battling with a demon of incest as well, at the hand of his grandfather.
While this made things come full circle he had no redeeming qualities to him. Sure, he cried before and after each conquest, but he was a despicable human-being. The author’s mother was no different; she was just as complicit in her family’s ruin.
Something I learned in my Creative Nonfiction class during my undergrad was the art of fabrication—in which an author might sprinkle little lies into their work of nonfiction for the purpose of either sprucing up the story or because they could not properly recall certain events in their life.
Literally, every single encounter she has with someone outside of her family there was always some shared antiquity of incest. This was the case with friends, classmates, past lovers. It all became too much. It was like she was in a twilight zone of incest, and everyone around her had experienced some form of incest in one way or another. I could not believe that to be true. I could not believe that there was not a single person in her life that would not be shocked by her father’s actions. That no one in her life existed to provide her a form of comfort.
Nonetheless, The Incest Diary is a powerful tale, indeed. As disgusted as I was with the author’s burgeoning infatuation, I think this was an astonishing book.
If you or someone you know is in a crisis or has expressed that they’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, please tell someone who can help right away. Below, is a resource and sexual assault hotline that may be of help, and can be used at any time.
National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: a safe, confidential service. When you call the hotline, only the first six numbers of the phone number are used to route the call, and your complete phone number is never stored in our system. Most states do have laws that require local staff to contact authorities in certain situations, like if there is a child or vulnerable adult who is in danger.
Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.