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Hypatia 20.2 (2005) 210-213

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Tales of Trauma

The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony. By Leigh Gilmore. (Cornell University Press, 2001) and Telling Incest: Narratives of Dangerous Remembering from Stein to Sapphire. By Janice Doane and Devon Hodges. (University of Michigan Press, 2001).

Leigh Gilmore's The Limits of Autobiography and Telling Incest by Janice Doane and Devon Hodges are both books about trauma narratives. Although the authors are exploring the same general terrain, their approaches and objectives are quite different. Doane and Hodges are interested in what makes an incest narrative believable. They focus on historical and contemporary narratives about incest and show how "telling incest" is constrained and facilitated by social attitudes and expectations operating in a society at different times as [End Page 210] well as in different parts of the society at the same time. Gilmore is interested in showing how writing at the margins of trauma narratives can be productive and create "an alternative jurisdiction for the self-representation of trauma" (Gilmore, 16). She focuses on a broad range of traumatic experiences, including incest, and explores the instability of the boundaries between autobiography and biography, truth and fiction, as well as trauma and self-representation. Gilmore's text presents some of the complexities underlying the current "memory wars." However, Doane and Hodges's text is more useful to those testifying to acts of incest or other traumas, and for those interested in refuting charges that women, or their incest memories, are fundamentally untrustworthy.

The Limits of Autobiography is a fascinating read. Gilmore writes well and includes an impressive array of authors and theorists in her text as she analyzes works by Dorothy Allison, Mikal Gilmore, Jamaica Kincaid, and Jeanette Winterson. She suggests that some authors might not be able to tell their stories "if they were subjected to a literal truth test or evaluated by certain objective measures" (Gilmore, 14). She argues that because of this, some authors may chose to publish their works as "fiction," as "novels," or as "first person fiction." Alternatively, she suggests that some authors may reject the autobiographical label because they are concerned that they will face too many challenges about the truthfulness of their claims (14). Therefore, according to Gilmore, some authors write nonautobiographical but self-representational texts that allow them the freedom to become a different type of subject, a subject not confined by "the deformations of legalistic demands," such as literal truth tests (44).

The great strength of Gilmore's text is that she successfully argues that the boundaries between autobiography and biography, truth and fiction, and trauma and self-representation are highly unstable. Ultimately, this very success is also the text's greatest weakness because it undermines anyone testifying about the trauma of inflicted injury. If the boundaries are as unstable as Gilmore argues, then there is no way to "prove" that a particular person's testimony about incest, or any other trauma, is true. And as Doane and Hodges point out, "producers of the incest survivor memoir still insist upon the truth of their memories of incest, that 'the thing' really happened" (Doane and Hodges, 9).

Gilmore is well aware of the difficulties that surround the "telling" of trauma. She wants to argue that the nonautobiographical stories, or "limit-cases" (Gilmore, 6) she analyzes create "an alternative jurisdiction" (16) wherein the subject crosses social, legal, narrative, and psychic boundaries "to tell complex stories of injury" (43). However, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify "the subject" in Gilmore's text. For example, the subject could be understood as an author, for example, Dorothy Allison, or as "Bone," Allison's character in Bastard Out of Carolina (1993). The other alternative is to understand the subject as the one constructed by Gilmore through her analysis. Gilmore constructs this subject by using autobiographical and biographical information about the authors, such [End Page 211] as Allison, when she analyzes their texts. The use of this information is ironic because Gilmore suggests that the authors she analyzes, including Allison, do not write autobiographical texts because they fear a skeptical reception.1 Yet she...


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pp. 210-213
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Archived 2009
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