Who Gets to Write About Sexual Abuse, and What Do We Let Them Say?
Criticism of ‘My Absolute Darling’ and of memoirs about incest suggests that there are some stories we’re not ready to hear
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Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling came out almost exactly a month ago. In that time it has been much discussed; it was initially heavily praised and then began to draw ire, especially from influential feminists. The backlash primarily took the form of snarky comments on social media and Twitter. It started with Roxane Gay, who shot off some derisive subtweets while reading and then posted a critical review of the novel on Goodreads. By the next day the book had become an in-joke on literary twitter, prompting Nicole Cliffe, co-founder of The Toast, to remark that it was up there with Ethan Frome at the top of lists of most despised books. To make matters worse, Tallent had given a tone deaf interview to The Guardian in which he explained his project’s importance by saying, “we need more books like this…about survivors and abuse.” His white-guy-saves-the-world arrogance did not go over well with many readers. A few days later Bitch published s.e. smith’s scathing takedown of the novel entitled “My Absolute Misogyny: Male Authors Are Still Profiting from Women’s Pain,” which described it as the “most sexist book of 2017.” Somewhere in the distance a death-knell sounded for Tallent’s aspirations to enlightened manhood.
My Absolute Darling is primarily an exploration of a mind shaped by abuse. Its protagonist is a fourteen-year-old girl named Turtle who lives with her father and grandfather in the relative isolation of the hills outside Mendocino. Turtle likes to play with guns, dislikes other women, and is frequently raped by her father. She has been called “a heroine in the mold of Huck and Scout” by Parul Sehgal of The New York Times, which she is, if by that you mean she’s a self-contained youthful adventurer with a funny name who’s comfortable in what seems to be a quintessentially American natural landscape. Of course, Turtle finds herself in a much darker world than Twain or Lee ever imagined for their spunky protagonists. Here, the wolf is not only at the door, but inside the house, indeed in the heroine’s very bed. Innocence and experience mean something wholly different in a bildungsroman about a victim of incest.
One of the things that is challenging about the novel is that Turtle both adores and loathes her father. There are even times when she seems to yearn for him sexually, or at the very least participate somewhat willingly in their incest. She doesn’t think of what’s happened to her as abusive until long into the book, and doesn’t describe her father’s crimes as “rape” until the book is nearly over. Indeed, she only begins to be able to see him for what he is when he abandons her (during which time she forms an intense friendship with a teenage boy) and then returns with a ten-year old girl. When we see the way Martin (Turtle’s father) coaches the girl into accepting his abuse, we come to fully understand what has happened to Turtle before the book began, and why she remains invested in him despite his brutality.
One of the things that is challenging about the novel is that Turtle both adores and loathes her father.
Critics have been divided about whether Tallent’s portrayal of that incest is successful or responsible. Roxane Gay wrote that though she understood that Tallent was trying to suggest Turtle’s ambivalence, she “did not like the way it was handled here.” She found that “the sexual violence was written, all too often, with an uncomfortable amount of romance.” Smith too criticized the novel for exploiting, in a pornographic way, the victimization of its heroine. Sehgal also faulted the novel for relying on cliches about women, but different ones than those Gay and smith seemed to be responding to. For Sehgal the fact that “Turtle has clearly been designed to be ‘empowering’” suggested another, subtler kind of misogyny, which defines female empowerment in terms of what are traditionally viewed as “male” forms of heroism (the ability to kick ass and chew bubble gum, etc.).
Personally, I found My Absolute Darling’s depiction of the psychological costs of sexual trauma to be fully convincing. It had many faults (for me, most jarringly, the unbelievability of the teen characters’ dialogue, which Gay aptly described as “like Dawson’s Creek but in Mendocino.”) The book is far from perfect and probably not a “masterpiece” as its cover proclaims, though let’s be real: it was only Stephen King (not exactly a master of nuance) who said that. I liked it, but I’m not interested in convincing you whether to read it or not. Rather, the response to the novel got me thinking about reader reception to texts about sexual violence, and the curious shapes that reception often takes.
Discussions of the novel, particularly after Tallent’s embarrassingly self-impressed Guardian profile, often articulated the position that men should not write novels like My Absolute Darling, especially not now, when the voices of women are finally being given a platform with regard to this issue. As smith wrote in the Bitch review, “the use of sexual violence against women for shock value and literary awards is nothing new” and there is already a “huge body of literature by women who’ve survived incest and child sexual assault.” Tallent’s claim that “we need more books…about survivors and abuse” suggested his ignorance or dismissal of this canon. At best he was clueless; at worst he was positioning himself as “doing women a favor” (as smith put it) as a cover for his exploitation of their stories.
As smith pointed out, there is a whole canon of literature (both fiction and nonfiction) written by victims of sexual violence and sexual abuse like incest. This literature often gets charged with the same criticisms that have been made of Tallent’s novel : of eroticizing sexual violence, exploiting the stories of victims (even if the story is told by the victim), embellishing levels of violence, and just being generally unnecessary. I fully understand why a novel that depicts graphic sexual violence against a girl child, especially one written by a man, would call forth these questions; Tallent is, of course, the literal creator of his characters’ misfortunes, ones which presumably he has never shared (at least we can assume he has never been a 14-year-old girl who is in an incestuous relationship with her father). I generally have no personal problem with people writing about things they can’t have experienced, but I also understand that such depictions engender questions about ethics. (For example: are the representations gratuitous? Do they subject the reader to trauma for the sake of the larger narrative or merely to ratchet up the story’s stakes?) What I want to know is why the criticisms leveled against Tallent’s work dovetail so closely with those made against recent high profile memoirs — first-person accounts — of abuse written by women. Why, indeed, has Tallent’s book been less controversial than some such works?
For example, in his review of the recent memoir The Incest Diary for The New York Times, Dwight Garner praised the book but reflexively offered proof of its “veracity,” as if the question of the story’s truthfulness would be the first that would come to readers’ minds, despite the fact that it was published by high-class literary venue Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. With more self-awareness, Rich Smith analyzed his own impulse to question the story’s credibility for The Stranger, but still felt compelled to offer statistics that ‘proved’ that the author’s story was a common one. Though reviewers of both The Incest Diary and Roxane Gay’s Hunger, for instance, lauded the texts for their literary accomplishments, only reviewers of The Incest Diary questioned the text’s truthfulness. No reviewer, as far as I can tell, had the temerity to challenge Gay’s account of her gang rape. Why was The Incest Diary treated differently?
The reception of The Incest Diary places it in a tradition of incest/long term sexual violence memoirs by women that have been sharply criticized on the grounds that they are too explicit. What all these texts have in common is that they are narrated by women who describe in detail the ambivalence they felt about their victimizers. Kathryn Harrison, author of the much maligned The Kiss (1997), began an affair with her previously-estranged father when she was twenty, and this was enough for many reviewers and readers to impugn her sanity and morality. (James Wolcott, for The New Republic, famously wrote a fantastically misogynistic account, in which he called the book “trash with a capital ‘T’” and explicitly blamed Harrison for her complicity in the incest.) As Garner put it (incidentally in his Times review of The Incest Diary), The Kiss ignited “a debate…about whether the American memoir had finally gone too far.”
What all these texts have in common is that they are narrated by women who describe in detail the ambivalence they felt about their victimizers.
Harrison was largely not seen as a victim, but as a writer who had opportunistically mined her family history for its gory details. The controversy which followed the publication of her book has defined the rest of her career. Similarly, Margaux Fragoso’s memoir Tiger, Tiger (2011), an account of her relationship, which lasted into her twenties, with the family friend who began abusing her when she was eight, was criticized for what was perceived as its horrifying attention to detail; a number of reviewers, including Jenny Diski, argued that it would only appeal to pedophiles. The anonymously authored Incest Diary, explicitly about a victim’s experience of sexual pleasure at the hands of her rapist father, has proven to be one of the year’s most controversial books. All of these books were accused — as My Absolute Darling has been — of going too far, of being too graphic, and of treating sexual violence with an uncomfortable amount of ambivalence.
Those criticisms of fiction make a certain kind of sense; we don’t assume that authors are impelled to create fictional stories in the same way that they might be impelled to testify to their own histories through memoir. Presumably there are many ways an author of fiction could express an idea, and the characters through which they do so are illustrative inventions. If one such invention is particularly damning to a certain group, or draws on a very damaging cliché, we wonder why the author chose to represent the character that way; and we will probably only give the author the benefit of the doubt if we are confident that they are conscious of and in control of that aspect of the representation.
But how can a memoir go too far? How can the truth be the wrong thing to tell? Even if talking about sexual violence were in some kind of “bad taste,” would anyone actually argue that our commitment to propriety should outweigh our understanding of actual crimes that are being committed against vulnerable people? The argument that Wolcott made in his review of The Kiss and Diski in her review of Tiger, Tiger — that people are now too willing to tell their tales of sexual woe — doesn’t hold up when one examines the rest of the culture. Exaggerated, unrealistic plots of rape can be found everywhere, particularly on popular television shows like CSI and Law and Order: SVU. They are the very stock and trade of whole channels like Lifetime and Investigation Discovery (I have friends who work in reality television who behind closed doors call these shows “rape porn” and lament the fact that they are hard to turn down because they pay so much better than more reputable documentary shows). No one who knows anything about the sexual violence statistics in this country can think that these shows accurately represent the majority of such violence. Though three fourths of rapes in the U.S. are committed by people known to the victim, the vast majority of sexual crimes on television are committed by unknown and terrifying super-predators. This disjunction suggests that we don’t watch these shows because we want to be aware of what’s really going on in the world, but because they do exactly what they’re designed to do: titillate.
How can a memoir go too far? How can the truth be the wrong thing to tell?
If we’ve accepted rape narratives as a form of entertainment (which Western culture has clearly done since at least the eighteenth century) then we can’t also argue that true stories of sexual violence have no place in the culture because they’re distasteful. There must be something else we don’t like about such memoirs. (Indeed, My Absolute Darling has been much more popular, well received, and widely reviewed than The Incest Diary, a fact which suggests that Tallent has benefited from our culture’s taste for sadistically pleasurable depictions of women while also situating his book as working against such representations.)
My suspicion is that books like The Incest Diary tend to be treated with skepticism and disapproval for a few reasons. The first, obviously, is that women’s stories about their experiences continue to be taken less seriously than those of men. To wit: a Twitter troll recently mocked me after reading my Twitter profile, which says that I study “sexual violence,” by tweeting that I study “made up sexual violence.” (Solid burn, bro!) The second, more complex reason is that incest and other forms of prolonged sexual abuse are such profound violations that they provoke a different form of disbelief than the kind that women often face when they talk about sexual violence they have experienced; when you tell your mother you’re being raped by your father, as the author of The Incest Diary does multiple times in her adolescence, you are disbelieved not because your mother is casually misogynistic, in keeping with her culture, but because she can’t believe you and uphold her understanding of the world. Incest is a violation so profound that it breaks knowledge. In these cases we disbelieve not because we’re so inured to a world where men take sexual advantage of women that such abuse seems normal, but because we can’t conceive of a world in which what we believe is normal could be so defiled.
All this said, I believe there’s still another reason why books like The Incest Diary are controversial (and I believe this sheds at least some light on why a novel like My Absolute Darling has been so upsetting for so many). The Incest Diary is written by a victim of rape, but not the kind of victim whose visibility contemporary feminism has fought for. This is both because it brings up the uncomfortable question of complicity when it deals with the author’s attraction to her father, and because the author is a person who has not survived in the sense that we mean when we call someone a “survivor” of sexual violence. Indeed, she writes that hers is a “creation story,” one in which the years of brutal sexual abuse she suffered are so central to her selfhood that they cannot be separated from her survival. They cannot be overcome, but must be integrated into her experience, and as the book ends, the author is still very much in the middle of that process.
The author writes that hers is a “creation story,” one in which the years of brutal sexual abuse she suffered are so central to her selfhood that they cannot be separated from her survival.
The Incest Diary ends without resolution, depicting the author stuck in a psychoanalytic repetition of the dynamic she had with her father with another man. The book is about the inescapability of such violence; its entire structure and story challenge the notion that one can emerge as a “survivor” from certain kinds of trauma. Though we seem more ready than ever, as a culture, to talk about sexual violence, we may not yet be ready to hear the story of the person who has lived but not “survived.” And yet, if we are as concerned about the accounts of women being taken seriously as we say we are, we should welcome such stories, even if they don’t meet our expectations or confirm our biases.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that one person’s memoir is another’s fiction. This is especially true when we talk about sexual violence and intimate trauma, where real people often disagree about what happened between them. The Incest Diary attests to this. The narrator’s family refuses to acknowledge the reality of her sexual abuse, despite some of them having literally seen her father abusing her. The author does a lot of thinking about how it can be that her brother and mother, and even her father (who believed she had “seduced” him at the age of three), perceived reality radically differently from the way she did. When Harrison published The Kiss, she faced much criticism over the fact that her first novel Thicker Than Water had dealt with similar material. She was charged with “self-plagiarism” by many reviewers, and this seemed to be further evidence for many that Harrison was simply returning to the material for the sake of its salaciousness, or perhaps even fabricating the story. Harrison’s father granted an interview to The New York Observer after the publication of The Kiss, in which he complained that the book put his life as a public figure (he was a former pastor) in “jeopardy,” but never explicitly denied her story, saying that he was uncomfortable with accusing her of lying. Harrison, on the other hand, wrote that The Kiss “exposed” her, not her father. While I, as a reader, have no doubt that the author of The Incest Diary and Kathryn Harrison were both terribly sexually exploited by their fathers, I also see Harrison’s point: memoirs tell the truth of the memoirist, from their perspective. We get uncomfortable when memoirists write about topics that we generally adjudicate in a court of law, because they expose the ambiguities that such law can never account for.
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s recently-published The Fact of a Body blends memoir and fiction to trouble this very divide, showing how it can break down in relation to the topic of sexual violence in general and the sexual abuse of children in particular. In it, Marzano-Lesnevich recounts her own abuse at the hands of her grandfather while also telling a parallel story: that of a convicted child molester and murderer on whose legal team she once briefly served. The book is half constructed from the Marzano-Lesnevich’s memory and half fictionalized: explicitly, as the author constantly reminds the reader, constructed from court documents and other records of the case. Even when dealing with her own history, Marzano-Lesnevich continually questions her motivations as a writer (as she writes of her parents, who, though they put a stop to the abuse, continued to allow her grandfather to have contact with their children): “Am I mistaking my own interests in the past for theirs? Can my parents sit across from him and never, never imagine the actions that lie behind the words they have been told, never see the story unspool before them?”
This is a book that refuses to resolve its complexities. It puts aside ideology and asks us to consider the vastness of the questions that sexual violence and in particular incest pose for all us (let alone for people who have been victims of such crimes). Marzano-Lesnevich asks us to sit with the ambiguity of contradictory truths: that her grandfather wasn’t “all bad” and that he molested her, that her parents attempted to both protect him and her, that the murderer whose story she tells was also a victim, and that there are secrets we will never resolve about both our own and other people’s families.
Gabriel Tallent’s fame (and infamy) will probably be long-lasting. As I said before, I’m not sure if you should read his book, and if you do, you should be aware of the possibility that it may be triggering if you’re carrying sexual trauma. What I do know is that it’s easy to criticize a guy who takes on a topic like this, and talks about his book with such easy confidence. I also know that a lot of important, challenging, frightening, and stunning books are being written about sexual violence, and they are often batted down with versions of the same criticism Tallent has faced. This pattern should encourage us to think about why certain narratives are more threatening than others, not because of their author’s gender or their genre, but because of their content. And if you choose to read one book about this topic this year, read The Incest Diary or The Fact of a Body. To borrow a phrase from Tallent, “we need more books like this.”