Review: Unspeakable – Father-Daughter Incest in American History

Book Review from Wellesley Centers for Women

Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History
By Lynn Sacco
Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Reviewed by Mary Hamer

Excerpt from the review:

Mothers above all attracted blame: their daughters’ illnesses were said to be caused by their poor housekeeping. Yet, as in earlier centuries, it was often a watchful mother who, suspecting her child was being abused, went to seek medical confirmation. Now she could seriously be informed that gonorrhea was a “childhood disease.” Once a rapid cure for vulvovaginitis arrived in the form of antibiotics, doctors’ anxiety around its epidemiology died away.

…. as history shows, and as Lynn Sacco’s absorbing and nuanced Unspeakable makes plain, ignorance and confusion about incest spread out to contaminate understanding in other areas. She explores the historical record to reveal how professionals in early twentieth-century America abandoned both scientific knowledge and common sense rather than register the fact that father-daughter incest was taking place right across their society.

As Sacco reminds us, it was late in the twentieth century before the work of feminists (foremost among them Judith Herman, with Father-Daughter Incest [1981]) succeeded in bringing the matter to public attention. Astonishing numbers of women came forward to identify themselves as incest survivors, yet much of the literature published in response “focused primarily on debates over psychoanalytic theories or feminist politics, not the empirical reality of incest,” writes Sacco.

. . . Sacco sets out in search of materials to build that social-scientific context and to investigate the empirical reality of father-daughter incest. Drawing together evidence from disparate sources, she offers a compelling account, one that is unflinching, too, when it comes to medical detail. In choosing to approach father-daughter incest through the medium of medical history, and newspaper and law reports from the past two centuries, Sacco makes an inspired move. Stepping aside from the confusions and controversies of today, she investigates the public record to discover whether communities in the U.S. were ever aware that sex-crimes were being committed within their own borders and if so, what they did about it.

This sober investigation uncovers a curious history. “More than five hundred reports of father-daughter incest [were] published in more than nine hundred newspaper articles across the country, mostly between 1817 and 1899,” she writes. The accused fathers were often prominent, respectable white men. But there was an abrupt decline in the number of such reports after the turn of the twentieth century.

Sacco concedes that multiple factors go to account for this, from the increased control over such cases exercised by Progressive Era doctors and social workers to the closing of courtrooms to the public and the press at the request of defense lawyers. More telling, in her view, were the many threats to the stability of U.S. society, beginning in the 1890s. Labor unrest was widespread, while immigrants and newly mobile African Americans were changing familiar demographics and overwhelming the resources of cities. Against this apparent chaos was erected an idealized image of the white family, and above all of the white father and his authority, as the linchpin of modern American society.

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