- Shifting Contexts, Shaping ExperiencesChild Abuse Survivor Narratives and Educating for Empire
"I do not know, Zirigu, but it is certainly good that all of my children are boys. It is good I never had a daughter. Because if I had had a daughter, and I knew a big man was doing unholy things with her, then with a matchet in my own hand, I would have cut that big man to pieces myself."———Spoken by Setu, in Ama Ata Aidoo's "For Whom Things Did Not Change" in the collection No Sweetness Here.
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.———Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood
In considering the shifting contexts and shaping experiences of child sexual abuse, I focus in this essay on writers I call "literary survivors." I identify these survivors as "literary" because they are well-respected authors in their own right and because they self-consciously locate their treatments of sexual abuse in relation to received literature and constructions of history. Using the concept "survivor," I seek to foreground the agency of the writers I study and the politics of cultural criticism they take up in writing back to the modernist projects of hyper-individuation, [End Page 30] education, and nation building. I recognize that by invoking this term I am calling on contemporary feminist and trauma theory in a shorthand that brings the idea of "survivor" to contexts where the subjects of my study may or may not have found the term operating.
This move is strategic, drawing into proximity around experiences of child abuse texts that might not otherwise be so juxtaposed. Respecting the irreducible specificity of each account, my goal is to counter and complicate a Western trend toward medicalized, isolating, and yet curiously universalizing constructions of child abuse survival. I have selected texts that span an arc of historic context, from Enlightenment Europe to U.S. slavocracy and from contemporary North America to Ghana to Australia, in an effort to trace a range of child subject positions and vulnerabilities to sexual abuse, not only in the Western patriarchal family but also as targeted effects of colonialism and contemporary globalization. My purpose is to consider how such texts, taken together, might reveal the ways that structures of traumatic experience (Caruth 1995, 4)1 are culturally produced in the crucibles of inscribing social differences. I want to examine how these writers take up the concept of the "child" as "educable subject" in several colonial and nationalist projects and the contexts each provides for child sexual abuse. In so doing, I hope to generate discussion that resonates with the intellectual activism advocated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who argues that:
[T]he historian and teacher of literature must critically "interrupt" each other, bring each other to crisis, in order to serve their constituencies; especially when each seems to claim all for its own. . . . The teacher of literature, because of her institutional subject-position, can and must "re-constellate" the text to draw out its use. She can and must wrench it out of its proper context and put it within alien arguments. (1988, 241)2(1988, 241)2
Deploying literature and history as mutual disruptions, then, I will examine narratives of child sexual abuse through what might be seen as the "alien" arguments that inform each attempt to intervene in a specific historical milieu. To accomplish this I will offer comparative close readings of several literary texts—in chronological order: Mary Shelley's recovered tale Mathilda (written in 1819; first published in 1959); Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)3 ; from Not Vanishing, Chrystos's poem "For Eli" (1988); and Doris Pilkington/Nugi Garimara's Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996).4 [End Page 31]
These texts, spanning three continents and two centuries, allow me to situate the social practices of child abuse as they shift and shape subjectivities across historically and geographically diverse processes of globalization. I wish to emphasize the deconstructive power of child abuse survivor perspectives as they traverse a range of hegemonic regimes, in light of a fairly long-standing record of writers working to represent...