Incest is an uncomfortable topic to discuss. My novella, ‘The Last Taboo: A Love Story’, which was published this week in Griffith Review’s Earthly Delights Edition 54, is about genetic sexual attraction between a mother and son who are separated at birth and reunited as adults.
Yuk! I hear you thinking. What a turn off!
Most people don’t want to have sex with a relative, and most are profoundly repulsed by the very idea. Believe me, I’m no different. So why write about it?
Many years ago, I heard of a situation like this and was intrigued by my reaction. Instead of shock, I was almost totally without judgement. Instead of disgust, I wondered how it could happen. And what would be the likely consequences?
It took me a long time to find a way into the story, and even longer to inch forward with the telling. Looking back, I suspect that I needed to mature sufficiently to be able to digest what I was discovering.
Initially, I tried writing from both the mother and son’s point of view but I discovered I didn’t want to be that ‘up-close and personal’ to either character. And First Person didn’t give me sufficient distance to reflect on what was happening.
Third Person had its limitations too. It felt the opposite–far too distant–and I couldn’t seem to escape the feeling that I was examining a scientific curiosity under a microscope, which was not what I wanted at all.
I was flying from Warsaw to Moscow to do some research for my second novel when Second Person came to me like a gift from the writing gods. Perhaps it was being up in the clouds with them. Perhaps it was looking down on all those dark Russian forests. Whatever it was, I was suddenly scrabbling for paper and pen: I had a point of view: I had a voice: I was underway.
Although I’d never written in Second Person before, I’ve always liked Nikki Gemmel’s, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’. And I’ve always admired her for being able to write anything at all with two young children underfoot, one a baby only a few months old! Imagine that: you’re breastfeeding all hours of day and night, you’re totally exhausted, and you’ve got twenty minutes while they’re both asleep at the same time–you grab your pen or open your computer and switch focus–if that’s not inspirational, I don’t know what is!
What I particularly liked about writing in Second Person was the scope it gave me to get close to Claire, my main character, yet at the same time it gave me a compassionate distance: it felt like the ‘you’ could have been ‘I’. And the ‘you’ became a ‘Poor you…I understand how it might have been…I’m not judging…I’m merely recording…’ And I soon realised Second Person was also a safe place for the reader to consider such a fraught topic.
Here is an extract:
IN THE SUBURB where you live on the eastern edge of the city, your neighbour has a pomegranate tree that grows close to your front fence. For years you’ve watched its cycles of growth, the tapering of its green leaves and the budding of its orange-red flowers into fruit. When you took your first class in botanical art and discovered the Greek myth about the creation of seasons, it was never Persephone who triggered any recognition: it was Demeter, wandering the earth day and night, searching frantically for her lost child: it was her anguish you recognised as your own.
Taboos exist in all societies for a variety of reasons but often to maintain order. Not only do incestuous relationships threaten that order and disrupt the family unit, they also compromise parental authority and do irreparable damage to children. And biologically, we know that two people from the same bloodline risk producing genetically mutated offspring.
So, what is genetic sexual attraction, and why does it happen? I could say: ‘Read my novella’, because I think fiction is far superior to fact as a means to uncovering the complexity of an issue, but perhaps you’re still not convinced that you can stomach it? A little background might help.
In the late 1800’s, a Finnish sociologist, Edvard Westermarck, theorized that when children grow up together for the first six years of their lives, they develop a sexual aversion to each other, even if not biologically related. More recently, this has been studied in Israeli kibbutz where non-biologically related children raised together very rarely married in later life.
Genetic sexual attraction is the reverse imprint of this. If brothers and sisters or parents and siblings are separated at birth and reunited in adulthood, it seems the normal boundaries don’t exist. And the intensity of emotion is so highly charged and so overwhelming, that it feels like ‘falling in love’, which of course it is.
We fall in love with babies. We fall in love with partners. Why wouldn’t we fall in love with the mirror image of ourselves reflected in another? It’s the misinterpretation of the emotion that sometimes takes it into the dangerous area of sexual expression.
It is interesting to consider how taboos change over time. Cannibalism and incest remain strong taboos, as do pedophilia and patricide. Abortion, adultery, masturbation and homosexuality have, in many western cultures, become part of the norm.
And genetic sexual attraction? Initially I called my story, ‘The Last Taboo’ but added ‘A Love Story’ to the title when I realised it was above all a story about love, even if misdirected love.
I’d love to know what you think.
Griffith Review54: Earthly Delights: The Novella Project IV is available at https://griffithreview.com/store/ and all good book stores.