It is now twenty years since I first spoke out on the issue of incest, with the book Kiss Daddy Goodnight (Armstrong 1978). Today that issue is all but buried under the rubble from a bombardment of rhetoric about False Memory Syndrome and its siblings, False Accusation Syndrome, and Parental Alienation Syndrome. The subject of incest has become entertainment. The topic of incest has become a selling point. But the issue of incest, the feminist political analysis, has all but disappeared.
Recovered memory, ritual abuse, healing this, and recovery that have all generated flak and the airwaves are filled with static. It is no wonder than an interested observer, coming fresh into the midst of all this after the mid-1980s, would see no coherence, no internal logic to the ongoing events, but only an apparently randomly generated series of dramatic (or melodramatic) occurrences constantly escalating in pitch. It is no wonder that, given the fundamentalist spin that's been overlaid on the issue - 'I believe!'; I don't believe!'; 'Infidel!' Heretic!' - great numbers of people throughout the land are simply praying for surcease.
As a political story, the history of this issue is a prime illustration of how it is now possible for the powers that be to use noise to achieve the same end that was once served by repression. It is a story of how readily the solid feminist concept that 'the personal is political' can alchemistically transformed into 'the personal is the public'. It is, alas, the story as well of the power of the promise of 'help' and the language of 'treatment' to infantilise massive numbers of women, emphasising their fragility, securing their helplessness, isolating them from the larger universe, so cementing their focus on the purely internal that it looms to fill their entire visual screen. All in the name of empowerment.
Consider this: Ellen Bass and Laura Davis co-authored the most promoted - and most vilified - book on incest, The Courage to Heal, a book dedicated to the validation of survivors' experience, and the endorsement of survivors' veracity (Bass and Davis 1988). Surely a worthy effort. But here is the catch. No matter how much one implicitly trusts that suppressed memories do emerge in adulthood, the charge used by those challenging the reality of claimed assault is correct. The book does not require real memory, offering instead the assurance