Academic journal article African American Review

Incest and Intertextuality in Carolivia Herron's 'Thereafter Johnnie.'

Academic journal article African American Review

Incest and Intertextuality in Carolivia Herron's 'Thereafter Johnnie.'

Article excerpt

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies ?...

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? (Yeats)

The affirmative reviews with which the publication of Thereafter Johnnie was announced suggest that a new vision of Western culture and its battles has entered our midst. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, John Bierhorst compares Herron's "fascinating and highly original" novel about incest in a middle-class African-American family to The Color Purple, Beloved, and Linden Hills because it "adds a mythic dimension to the experiences of African-Americans" (16). Farai Chideya labels it a "gothic" novel as well as a "blues lament" and a "rap" in Newsweek and writes that it is set against both a "backdrop of worldwide race war" and the history of "slave-era miscegenation" (53). Barbara Christian's essay in The Women's Review of Books describes the novel as a "lyric poem" and an "epic" that invokes "ancient cultural myths" while also grounding itself in the present and foretelling an apocalyptic future. Christian calls Herron "a writer to be reckoned with" and discusses the ways that the novel challenges ready-made cultural categories such as "fact/fairy tale" and "family/race/nation" (6-7).

Thereafter Johnnie's intertextual focus underlines the extent to which incest is structured by received cultural narratives whose meanings, as Christian notes, are constantly subject to revision. Herron's project is similar to that of Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye because both novels collapse hegemonic myths to challenge male constructions of incest as a consensual, erotic act by problematizing the notion of daughterly desire in contexts in which fathers are omnipotent. Thereafter Johnnie, however, functions as an important counterpoint to the brutal rape Pecola Breedlove experiences because it suggests that fathers bear primary responsibility for incest regardless of whether they induce desire in their daughters. To the extent that Herron's text is in dialogue with The Bluest Eye, it can also be associated with the ongoing exploration of incest's function within our culture that has preoccupied psychologists, feminists, and writers for the last two decades.

Thereafter Johnnie joins a growing list of female-authored novels that contradict the Freudian assertion that most incest claims are untrue expressions of forbidden daughterly desire. The earliest of these texts, The Bluest Eye (1970), has been followed by a steady stream of novels that explore the roots of incest in American culture and its interactions with institutions of race, gender, and class.(1) This novelistic insistence that allegations of childhood sexual abuse are true is supported by psychological theories that began during the 1970s to challenge the notion that all claims of incest are false.(2) Judith Herman began researching incest in 1975 because of discrepancies between her patients' stories of childhood sexual abuse and her clinical training, which told her to ignore them.(3) The feminist perspectives from which Herman and others worked gained support from clinicians such as Ruth S. and C. Henry Kempe, who dealt primarily with those cases in which legal and social agencies became involved (3-9). Finally, the early 1980s witnessed psychoanalytical revisions of the Oedipal complex that challenge its assumptions that incest claims are invariably false. Alice Miller argues, for example, that adults confuse their desires for those of children and critiques theories that teach abused patients to view themselves as "wicked, destructive, megalomanic, or homosexual" (18).

These new approaches to incest support each other, combining diverse clinical techniques with the gendered analyses provided by feminism to provide a more comprehensive model of incest within our culture and our families. …

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