Telling, Re-Telling and Talking about Telling: Disclosure And/as Surviving Incest

Article excerpt

This essay has two intertwined goals. First, grounded in feminist standpoint theory, we advance the layered account (Ronai, 1995) as a method for representing experience that captures the current epistemological tension between commonality and difference in feminist scholarship. Then we present a layered account of the incest disclosure experience where we examine the disclosure forms of telling, re-telling, and talking about telling. This account challenges the boundaries between author and subject, private and public, personal and professional.

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   I feel like my story illustrates the road from victim to survivor to 
   activist. It g all about first, not telling. Then telling. Then retelling 
   in a variety of contexts to a variety of people, mostly intimates in one 
   way or another. Then talking about telling--as an advocate, and as a 
   scholar. This last step seems long in coming. (Robbin's interview) 

We begin this discussion of incest disclosure with disclosure of the story that led us to this place. We first met as colleagues when our careers brought us to the same university. We became friends and also, over time, became collaborators on research projects that integrated our interests in community development, intercultural communication, health communication strategies, and women's issues. In 1998 this relationship acquired a new, if temporary, definition, that of research interviewer/interviewee. When Leigh was working on a study about the communication dialectics experienced by incest survivors (Ford, Ray, & Ellis, 1999), Robbin, a survivor, asked to be interviewed as part of the study. The in-depth interview resulted in a transcript filled with Robbin's narratives within narratives, and the interview process and our subsequent talks about that process became our shared story. We often spoke of our desire to "do something" with what we learned, to tell others about this lived experience, but how we should do this remained problematic. The last year has been one of change for us; our conversations now unfold via email and telephone, but we have agreed that it is time to try to tell this story.

This paper then is about the significance of telling the story in all its dimensions for incest survivors. It is also about disclosure and relationships, our friendship relationship, our relationship as research interviewer and interviewee, and our present relationship as co-authors. Influenced by the experimental moment in ethnography, we privilege lived experience, including here the survivor's tale, the listener's story, and the research collaboration. Further, we use our self-conscious, subjective involvement in the creation of the text (Ellis & Flaherty, 1992). In this text we reflexively examine ourselves as subjects and objects, and through the dialogic form become both authors of our experience and audience to each other. Finally, we juxtapose this lived experience against the codification of experience as represented in traditional research practices. Through this juxtapositioning we hope that as readers engage the text, understanding emerges "in the spaces between" (Ronai, 1995, p. 396).

Disclosing private information

Accounting for the complexities of disclosing private information in interpersonal relationships has been an important focus of recent disclosure research (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996; Petronio, 1991). Framed by an understanding that personal relationships are challenged by contradictory demands for autonomy and intimacy (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996), an ongoing tension between the desire to keep some matters of the self private and the equally strong desire to reveal aspects of the self characterizes the disclosure process (Rawlins, 1983). Using boundary as an organizing metaphor, this process has been represented in communication boundary management theory (Petronio, 1991). …