One of the core psychiatric textbooks of the 1970s contains the following discussion of father-daughter incest. I apologise in advance for the upset in feelings that this text may cause my female readers, but it does indicate what women were up against in the days before feminism began to give us a voice.
Freedman, Kaplan & Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, II. (1975)
“There is little agreement about the role of father-daughter incest as a source of serious subsequent psychopathology.
The father-daughter liaison satisfies instinctual drives in a setting where mutual alliance with an omnipotent adult condones the transgression. . . . The act offers an opportunity to test in reality an infantile fantasy whose consequences are found to be gratifying and pleasurable.
. . . such incestuous activity diminishes the subject’s chance of psychosis and allows for a better adjustment to the external world.
. . . the vast majority of them were none the worse for the experience.”
THE REALITY . . .
The reality of incest is infants, babies, little girls, preadolescents and adolescents lying in their cribs and beds in fear. They become hyperattuned to footsteps, creaking stairs, breathing, and the light that appears around a bedroom door when it is opened at night. They are aware of being watched, usually quietly, obsessively, and with eyes that have a very strange look, not like dad’s usual expression. Sometimes all that happens is that he stands at the door or just inside the door or sits on the bed and stares. Sometimes he breathes heavily, rapidly, moans a little and then goes away.
At other times he touches her. He usually begins gently and talks softly as he rubs her body. He does this when he tucks her in at night after wishing her sweet dreams or later when she awakens to find him back in her bedroom, touching . . . feeling . . . and kissing her. He tells her it’s their little secret and to not tell anyone, for telling will spoil it. She knows it feels good but doesn’t understand the not telling anyone part. She begins to wonder . . .
Then she awakens to find his hands up her nightgown or down her pyjamas, rubbing her breasts, her thighs and buttocks, and “down there”. He tells her not to worry, that she feels so good to him and he’ll make her feel good too. And sometimes he does. She finds herself liking and hating what he’s doing. Why won’t he stop and why can’t she tell anyone and why her? He now tells her that she’ll get in trouble if she tells, and that he really loves her and needs her. Some girls will be told it’s her fault for being so attractive and leading him on. She’s confused: What did I do? Why is going to sleep at night leading him on?
His fondling intensifies and he starts doing other things. She awakens to find his hands all over her, probing her, rubbing her. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes not. Then he does even more. One night she awakens to find a penis in her mouth or his head under the covers, licking her down there. Or he probes her more and more with his fingers until he can finally penetrate her with his penis. She can’t believe it. She doesn’t know what’s going on. She wants it to stop. Sometimes it hurts so much. She tells him all these things but he says this is what fathers do for their daughters and that it’s for her own good. But he still tells her not to tell because no-one will believe her, or that it mummy won’t understand, or that it’s all her fault. She’s confused and frightened. And her body hurts and feels funny.
She can’t believe that he’s back to being normal in the morning when he greets her at breakfast. He’s back to acting like her dad. But sometimes during the day, if they’re alone, he’ll do some of the same things. Then she knows for sure it’s not a dream. She tries to tell her mum but can’t. What will she think? She’ll be so hurt. That’s confusing too because sometimes mum tells her to spend time with her dad and take care of him. Is that what she means? It’s better not to bother mum about this.
So she takes to hiding, during the day and especially at night. During the day it is easier, she just stays away and finds things to do to distract her. At night, she goes to her bedroom scared. She wears all the nightclothes she can put on and she pulls the covers up as tightly as she can. Sometimes she sleeps under the bed or in the closet behind the clothes damper or in the bathroom, in the tub, hidden away. She’s relieved to find any room with a lock on the door. She tries to booby-trap her bedroom door. Somehow he always manages to find her or to get through her defenses. And he continues to rub and fondle and enter. Other family members have begun to notice some of the “funny” things she does at night but nobody has asked why. He’s been caught in her room a couple of times during the night but he always says she was having a bad dream and he was comforting her. He’s always believed and nobody asks her what the bad dream was all about.
As the situation goes on, she finds herself watching from afar and being apart from her body. She looks at herself from the ceiling or concentrates intensely on the wallpaper or the curtains so she can make herself be somewhere else. Anywhere but right where she is, in her bed, with these things happening, with this nightmare. He’s crushing her . . . it hurts. She can’t get away . . . she squeezes her eyes tightly shut so she can’t see him or what he’s doing. She pinches herself and digs her fingernails into herself for distraction and punishment. She keeps a hand or foot free and reaches it out over the side of the bed so that he can’t have all of her. What would her mother think? And is all of this a bad dream? Is it really happening?
Over time she begins to have strange experiences at night when she’s alone in her bedroom. Her body feels like it’s swollen up to fill the whole room and she is a tiny speck in the middle of this void. The doorway with the light peeping under it is tiny, as if it’s a long way away, and the window is also tiny. She sees strange shards of multi-coloured lights inside her eyes when they are shut. She can’t sleep at night, even though she has to get up and go to school in the morning. To pass the time and try to create a world in which she feels safe and powerful, she constructs her own fantasy world in great detail, and lives in it through the night hours. Her private internal reality becomes more real to her than the external one.
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The child who is incestuously abused most often suffers chronic inescapable trauma without outside support to either buffer the situation or validate her responses to it. Not only does she suffer sexual intrusion, but it is repeated and escalates over time. Repeated traumas with no assistance leave a child to devise methods to cope – behaviourally, emotionally, socially and internally. She usually does so by developing strong defenses which sap much of her psychological and nervous energy. Her development may be stunted, with many developmental tasks neglected or unresolved. The secrecy, silence and taboo keep her from asking for help and prevent her from getting acknowledgement and validation of her experience. The child’s very reality is often negated, leaving her to wonder what is real and what is not?
Victims of childhood abuse develop symptomatology associated with acute Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, but due to the complexity of the symptoms and consequences, this condition is now called Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). The effects of these early experiences usually go unrecognized and untreated until the survivor enters the mental health system in adulthood. Even there, it is usually many years before the underlying abuse history is recognized and the survivor is assisted to seek the right help.
More on Childhood Trauma
Complex PTSD – Childhood Trauma
The Hidden Experience of Abuse