Academic journal article Shofar

Incest, Exogamy, and Jewishness on Roseanne

Academic journal article Shofar

Incest, Exogamy, and Jewishness on Roseanne

Article excerpt

On the April 17, 1994 episode of 60Minutes, Morley Safer reported on daytime television's fascination with confessions, recovered memories, and adult allegations of childhood abuse. As Safer put it, "the more bizarre the confession, the more airtime you get."1 Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a central figure in the 1990s "memory wars," who consistently challenged the credibility of recovered memories of sexual abuse, framed the issue starkly: "People are remembering sexual abuse in ways that is [sic] absolutely impossible; being abused in the womb, being abused in a prior life, being abused by, an alien . . . on a UFO."2 Safer also interviewed Roseanne Barr's siblings and her parents, Jerry and Helen Barr, whom she had accused of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in 1991. Then known as Roseanne Arnold, the actress and comedian disclosed her memories of abuse and her identification as a survivor at an incest survivor meeting at a church in Denver, Colorado, and in People Magazine. Barr stated, "My father molested me until I left home at age 17. He constantly put his hands all over me. He forced me to sit on his lap, to cuddle with him, to play with his penis in the bathtub."3 Describing her difficulty in coming to terms with the trauma, Barr wrote, "I clung to my fantasy of our happy, quirky family, a bit off-kilter, but colorful, all-American, Jewish."4

The 60Minutes interview allowed Jerry and Helen Barr, along with Roseanne's siblings Geraldine, Ben, and Stephanie, to publicly deny these (and other) allegations, as the sitcom Roseanne drew to the close of its sixth season. While the denials are forceful, Barr's parents and siblings also acknowledge some truths. When Safer brings up Barr's daughter's contention that her grandfather molested her at Barr's wedding (misattributing the accusation to Barr), Jerry Barr responds in an equivocal fashion: "And then my children asked me, 'Dad, did you pinch her on the tush? ' And I said, 'I can't recall,' but knowing me? Probably, probably." Barr's sister Geraldine confirms this: "My parents are guilty of being tushy touchers. They are. And that, I believe, is the genesis of a lot of Roseanne's claims. And I think, however, as tushy touchers, the punishment should fit the crime."5

Geraldine Barr's allusion to punishment fitting the crime is more than idiom. In her second memoir, My Lives, Roseanne Barr divulged that her then husband, Tom Arnold, "filed police reports in three states" against Jerry Barr based on his granddaughter's allegations.6 While Jerry Barr was never convicted of any crime, the tabloid and news media fascination surrounding Roseanne Barr's "crying incest" was enough for Safer to describe Jerry and Helen Barr as "the most famous accused molesters in the country."7 While Safer presents Roseanne's words with skepticism, the Barr family-Jerry Barr in particular- is treated sympathetically. Yet only a hundred years earlier, nineteenth-century antisemitic stereotypes associated Jewish men with incest and sexual predation, especially in Europe. The historical context reveals an extraordinary transformation: a once prevalent stereotype has not only receded considerably, but white Jewish men now often benefit from white privilege in the face of such allegations.

This rare televised appearance of Barr's parents and siblings frames the ensuing reading of Barr's eponymous television show. Roseanne directly engaged issues of memory, abuse, and incest within the Conner family, a working-class white family whose representative qualities invite consideration next to Barr's assessment of her own working-class family as "all-American, Jewish."8 The show's depictions of the fictional Roseanne and (her sister) Jackie's memories of physical abuse at the hands of their father dovetailed with ongoing media coverage of Barr's actual family allegations, blurring the lines between fiction and autobiographical fiction. While 60 Minutes cast doubt on Barr's assertions and credibility, Barr's television show can be read as a complex incest narra- tive with vertical and lateral components, offering a sophisticated rendering of how abuse (and memories of abuse) could affect siblings in different ways, and portraying the possibilities and limitations of reconciliation. …

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