Obviously, the words that are critical to Elliott’s defining her experience—not only her day-to-day reality, but also her identities and her oppressions—are missing. The point of Elliott’s article was to make visible the usually invisible process of marginalization. What does it mean when “tits” is in the dictionary, but “clit” is not? What does it mean when there is a term for hating queers, but not one specific to the combination of homophobia and misogyny? What does it mean when “ablebodied” is in the dictionary, but “ableism” is not? What does it mean when every conceivable category for christian sects and denominations is included, but the words descriptive of Jewish ethnic origins are not? What does it mean when all the pejorative terms for poor people are in the dictionary, but “classism” is not?
Elliott’s printout of the contents of her supplemental dictionary file makes visible a process that is usually hidden. The printout not only exposes a mechanism of exclusion, but it also suggests connections and patterns of oppression among her diverse identities.
What is missing from the traditional canon of dramatic literature? Turning to the supplemental file of my own canon of plays, I find that nearly all of the archetypes I use are absent from the traditional canon: the avenging mother, the survivor of sexual assault who is believed, the angry young woman, the ambitious winner, the fiercely loyal sisters, the venerated crone, the lesbian lover. My archetypal narratives are also missing: the sanctioned patricide, the woman’s resurrection through rage, the recovery of memory, the shifting of paradigms, the de-colonization of the body, the furious re-invention of the self, the reconstruction of the ruptured mother-daughter bond.
There are many archetypes in my lesbian-feminist culture that are missing from the traditional canon of dramatic literature. As with Elliott’s supplemental dictionary, I find it instructive to examine these omissions for what they reveal about that mainstream canon. These archetypes include the rejected older woman who, instead of becoming consumed with revenge like Medea, liberates
herself joyously from the entire heterosexual paradigm that would put her out to pasture at menopause. In the patriarchal canon, the archetypal survivor is Cassandra, whose ability to predict the future is seen as a curse, not a strategic advantage, because no one will believe her. In my culture, the survivor of male atrocities uses her second sight to heal herself and to rescue and recruit other victimized women. In our epic dramas, the daughter, unlike Elektra, sides with the mother against a perpetrating father, and our goddesses, unlike the motherless Athena, endorse the patricide of the perpetrator, not the matricide of the avenging mother. Our Antigones, longing for a voice in the political process, are not satisfied with impotent and self-martyring protests against a sadistic, misogynist system, but seek out the alliances with other powerful women. We have a literature
replete with warrior women from long lines of unbroken matrilineal bonding. Why are these rich roles and archetypes missing from a canon that purports to be universal?
I suggest that it is because of the censorship of incest as a subject fit for inclusion in the canon. If we believe the statistics that tell us one third of all girls are sexually abused before the age of eighteen, usually by a male caregiver, the case could be made that incest is the central paradigm for women in patriarchy. Incest is the template for a woman’s experience of betrayal by her fathers and her brothers. When the mother is forced to choose between the interests of her male partner or male offspring, and the interests of her daughter, she will most often align her interests with what will give her the most stake in a male-dominated system. Sadly, most mothers will reject their sexually abused daughters. And here we see the Cassandra who cannot erase her memory of trauma, but who cannot find the women—or the men—who will believe her. Here we see the Clytemnestra, who, in
avenging the murder of her daughter, falls victim to another daughter and a son who identify with the perpetrating father. Here is Medea who avenges her sexual rejection on the younger woman and on her own children. Here is Athena, defining the father as the true parent, the one who provides the “seed,” and the mother as only the empty carrier, the borrowed womb.
When incest is not named, when the incest story is not told, it becomes the accepted paradigm, part of the default lexicon for defining accepted reality.
In preparing this paper, I asked the members of my theatre newsgroup for titles of plays that dealt with child sexual abuse/incest. I say “child-sexual-abuse-slash-incest,” because, in my experience of working with survivors, the two are most often synonymous, or, at least, very closely related in terms of scenarios and syndromes.
The first thing I noticed from the list of titles was that the “slash” has disappeared. There is almost no connection at all between the portrayal of incest and child sexual abuse in the majority of these plays. Incest as a titillating scenario of adult desire is a recurrent theme. Child sexual abuse is all but absent.
A sampling of incest titles from the traditional and contemporary canon include: Oedipus Rex, Phaedre, Pericles, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Desire Under the Elms, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Ghosts, Fool for Love.
Lots of stepmother-stepson adult attraction, lots of half-brother-half-sister adult attraction, and a couple of cases of adult parent-child, mistaken-identity attraction. I know and have worked with hundreds of incest survivors, and not one of our stories even remotely resembles any of these. In fact, I don’t know anyone whose story resembles these. The popularity of these models for incest must be attributable to either the fantasies or the subconscious fears of the male playwrights who employ them as plot devices.
Moving away from incest to plays that deal with child sexual abuse, we find the field thins out considerably. Almost all of the plays in this category are recent ones. One of the oldest is Turn of the Screw, with its suggestions of sexual abuse by a tutor and a governess. Part of the much-touted mystery of this play, however, is the fact that audiences never know if the story is true or just the neurotic, projected, sexual fantasies of a frustrated spinster. There are two contemporary plays about child sexual abuse set in all-male environments, focusing on the fate of the perpetrator in prison communities: Lilies and Short Eyes.
Two of the suggested titles finally dealt with experiences of child-sexual-abuse-slash-incest. The first is Nuts, a play by Tom Torpor that was made into a feature film starring Barbra Streisand—a film which, unlike other Streisand films, received almost no critical attention. The protagonist is a prostituted woman who has murdered a john. During the course of her trial, she recovers repressed
childhood memories of paternal incest.
And then there is How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel, which has just won a Pulitzer. In this play an older girl is sexually abused by her uncle. What does it mean that a play on the traditionally taboo subject of incest has been officially recognized by being awarded the Pulitzer? Is this a sign that the silence about incest is being broken, or just a subtler form of censorship. In order to answer
that question it is important to look carefully at the depiction of the survivor in How I Learned to Drive, and it is also important to understand something about the process of a child when she is sexually abused, especially by a trusted adult or caregiver, as is the case in Ms. Vogel’s play.
The experience of the sexually-abused child is this: “This can’t be happening to me” and “This is happening to me and I can’t stop it.” There is a variation on that second part: “This is happening to me and it’s going to keep happening to me, night after night, for years and years and years, and I can’t stop it.” Obviously, “This can’t happen” and “This is happening” are mutually exclusive propositions. To accommodate them in one body, the mind splits off the second part--the
unthinkable, the unspeakable part. Some children literally experience themselves rising up to a corner of the room and watching it all from the ceiling. Others spontaneously repress the memory as it happens. In the case of Marilyn Van Derber, a former Miss America who was raped by her father for years, she had a “day child” and a “night child” identity. The “night child” had no communication with the “day child,” until Van Derber was in her 30’s and began to recover her
memories, the recovery apparently triggered by her daughter having reached the age at which her own abuse had begun.
Some children experience displacement. A typical episode of displacement involved a child who was raped by a friend of her father’s while her father held her down. During the rape she focused on a poster of a rock star that was on the wall, and afterwards she “remembered” the abuse being perpetrated by someone whose description tallied with that of the rock star. She successfully displaced the identity of the rapist to protect herself from information too dangerous to access.
In some cases, the child does not travel to the corner of the room, but instead, she merges her identity with that of the perpetrator. In this syndrome, referred to as “fusion with the perpetrator, “ the child identifies with him during the abuse, adopting a pornographic perspective toward her own body as “other.” Because of her complete lack of agency, it is safer to identify with the experience of the perpetrator than with her own. The child who experiences fusion during the trauma learns, as a survival skill, to become aroused by her own pain, fear, and humiliation.
Most survivors split off not only the incest, but also various emotional affects associated with the experience. The child whose natural instinct would be to fight off or even kill her assailant is obviously in a dilemma if this assailant is a primary caregiver on whom her survival depends. In cases of incest, normal healthy emotional responses can jeopardize the life of a child and she may develop completely various dissociative states to store these taboo and life-threatening emotions and behaviors. Rage at her rapist and grief at the betrayal are two of the strongest and most taboo emotions for the survivor, and it may be very difficult for the victim to access these, even later in life, because of her early association of these emotions with life-threatening conditions.
Getting back to How I Learned to Drive and the Pulitzer… Ms. Vogel’s play is an accurate depiction of a certain type of incest, in which the girl is older and the perpetrator is not violent and poses as someone supportive of her interests. In situations like these, it is common for the victim to feel complicitous, to mistake the perpetrator’s predation for a “relationship,” and to romanticize or sentimentalize the experience. Her confusion stems from the still-necessary repression of rage and grief.
Does this have anything to do with its official recognition? I maintain that it has everything to do with it. The key to that Pulitzer lies in what is missing from the canon: the incest play from the perspective of a recovered survivor—the survivor who has integrated her rage and her grief and who understands her experience in the context of a male-dominant culture dependent on the sexual subordination of women.
Ms. Vogel’s play was praised for the “humanity” with which she treated her subject. She was also praised for depicting the “complexity” (read “mutuality?”) of incest, the fact that is not always so “black and white.” They praised her even-handedness in the sympathetic portrayal of the perpetrator, the confusion of the victim. In other words, the majority of the critics were not noticing that the point-of-view was pathological, that the victim was still deeply dissociative. But in order to
notice this, they would have to notice the lack of anger or grief. I submit that her critics did not miss the anger or grief at all, and, furthermore, I submit that she received the Pulitzer precisely because that anger and that grief were missing. She told an incest story in which there is not political context, in which the act itself is as isolated as a tree falling in the woods, in which the perpetrator is not a sadistic predator, but “merely” a loser. Her survivor is resigned, superior, moving on. How poignant, how handy.
How I Learned to Drive is not the only dissociative narrative being valorized as the whole story. There are several well-known performance artists, women and self-declared survivors of horrendous sexual abuse, who tour to colleges and universities where they take their clothes off and even recreate scenarios of sexual abuse in the name of sexually liberating themselves or protesting the
objectification of women. Performance art critics have written tomes of theory about these artists, none of which incorporates a shred of theory about trauma and recovery.
What if these “radical porn feminist activists” are actually partially-recovered survivors still in the “acting out” phase of early recovery? What if the replication of traumatic scenarios under these more controlled and therefore subjectively more empowering circumstances (no pimps, no johns) is part of their process in integrating? What if the audience is watching an unrecovered survivor
parade her pathologies in front of us in an articulate, but still incoherent attempt to tell her story and integrate? What if these are not sexually liberated adult women at all, but women who are still slaves to their traumatized childhoods?
One sure way of finding out would be to compare their performances and their narratives to the work of recovered survivors, whose narratives incorporate anger toward the perpetrator and a full sense of the lost entitlement of safety and agency, with the cultural context in which their abuse occurred as subtext. But these narratives are conspicuous in their absence. The story of the fully integrated
survivor is missing, even as the survivor who sentimentalizes her perpetrator or who recreates her own abuse for mass consumption receives the official endorsement of the mainstream.
Why aren’t more women noticing and protesting this absence, this censorship? Well, let’s imagine we are at a play right now. And let’s assume that those of you who are listening to this paper are the audience. Let’s break it down: Half of you are women. For every three women in the audience, one will have been sexually abused as a child, most likely in a situation involving incest with a male
perpetrator. Let us consider that those women, those women who comprise one third of the female audience. Do they remember at all? Many will not. If these women do remember, how have they dealt with it? More to the point, with whom are they sitting? Probably with family. Would those seat companions be there if she remembered, if she told? If the companion is a spouse, would he welcome the inevitable disinheritance, the stigma, the disruption of childcare arrangements, the
awkwardness at family gatherings? Is he up for the financial and emotional demands of the healing process? If she’s there with parents, would she lose one? Both? And how many siblings? Most of these women will have tried to forget or ignore. Frequently they are helped out in this by dissociative disorders which keep the memory conveniently disconnected from the emotions, which have been hermetically sealed off in other parts of the psyche. And here How I Learned to Drive, with its deeply dissociative heroine, will provide reassurance and validation. This play will be much more comfortable for the woman in denial than a play about a recovered survivor.
If these survivors in our audience are inclined to be religious, they can mistake this dissociation for forgiveness or transcendence, as did the critics of How I Learned to Drive. Forgiveness and transcendence are both endorsed as feminine virtues in ways that anger or a sense of entitlement are not.
But maybe these women in our audience have forged an entire identity from their fusion with the perpetrator. Maybe they experience themselves as sexually liberated, because they revel in the recreations of scenarios of their abuse. Certainly a pornographically-inclined partner will not be likely to complain. In fact, mainstream culture will endorse the woman who enjoys acting out sexually against herself. One could, in fact, make the case that this is the point of incest. If this third
of our female audience is still experiencing fusion with the perpetrator, they might enjoy the work of performers who treat their own bodies as “other,” and who arouse themselves with self-violation.
But what if this audience is not identified with the perpetrator? Then they are likely to react to this kind of “performance art” with sexual shock, retreating into the various dissociative states to which they have become habituated. Or maybe they are further along in their healing than the performer and they are feeling anger toward the rest of the audience for their exploitation of an obvious survivor. But if these women express this opinion, if they protest what is going on, or if they walk
out of the theatre, they will be labeled puritans, members of the sex police, feminazis. They are greatly at risk of calling attention to themselves as survivors, which is very dangerous in a situation where sexual predation is being encouraged. She may feel trapped with dangerous perceptions she
cannot articulate. If she is on a road to integrating, she may be forced back into splitting, and this is tremendously destructive of the healing process.
What is my point?
My point is that the canon is skewed, that the depictions of child sexual abuse that are allowed serve an agenda to marginalize the voice of the recovered survivor. My point is that we cannot possibly understand what we are seeing on the stage, nor can we theorize about it, until we have allowed all the voices of incest survivors to be heard, and especially the voices of those who have integrated
their experience and who can make the larger connections between a culture that looks the other way when girls are raped and then turns around and markets their damaged sexuality as role models for all women.
[Originally presented at Association for Theatre in Higher Education Conference, Toronto, 1999.]