- Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History
Lynn Sacco, author of Unspeakable, was an attorney before embarking on a second career as an historian. Law, like history, is a profession based on the [End Page 347] pursuit of evidence and the ability to craft recalcitrant fragments of fact into persuasive explanatory narratives. Yet Unspeakable addresses a subject that has left an extremely ambiguous and elusive textual record, and its argument turns around the fact of that elusiveness. Through prodigious research in two hundred years of court records, medical journals, and newspapers, Sacco establishes that father-daughter incest was once widely acknowledged and prosecuted yet disappeared from American public discourse in the early twentieth century. How, she asks, did father-daughter incest become unspeakable?
Though nineteenth-century incest charges were leveled against genteel whites at more than twice the rate they were brought against more marginal men, Sacco tells us that by the 1890s both newspapers and medical discussions associated incestuousness with the poor, people of color, and immigrants—people who were widely represented as dirty, shiftless, undisciplined, ignorant, and vicious. Sacco explains this discursive shift as a reaction against increasing social diversity and suggests that such constructions of incest “affirmed the inherent superiority of genteel white males by representing a fictional border they did not cross” as increased social diversity threatened to challenge their dominance (40). At just the same moment, however, bacteriological advances made it possible conclusively to identify the presence of the gonococcus in vaginal discharge. Early twentieth-century doctors were therefore put in the awkward position of having to account for the frequent presence of indisputable venereal infection in white female babies and children too young to be volitionally sexually active and from families too respectable to dismiss as “filthy” (72). Attempting “to maintain ideological integrity” (13) in the face of suggestive evidence that incest was widespread among white men of their own class, doctors began to argue that prepubertal girls could and routinely did contract venereal disease through nonsexual contacts with objects contaminated with gonorrheal discharge. Sacco describes these arguments as constitutive of a “noisy silence” about incest: doctors generated a screen of words about sanitation that deflected direct discussion of incest in a way that she sees as suggesting considerable anxiety about how to contain evidence of its occurrence and frequency.
It is notoriously difficult to prove the meaning of a silence. Sacco’s strategy is therefore to follow the noise. Doctors and their theories of contagion are beautifully researched and carefully situated in the context of changing professional needs and norms. Sacco reconstructs the citational trail through which selected aspects of individual doctors’ thoughts about gonorrhea were transmitted across time and space to become part of the body of medical opinion holding that gonorrhea in female babies and children could be contracted “innocently.” Intensive investigation of this chain of medical literature produced not one citation of a documented case of nonsexual transmission. Furthermore, her research suggests that routine claims of infection from contact with contaminated household objects were recycled in medical literature for years without any support from clinical or [End Page 348] laboratory testing—a fact of which Progressive Era doctors were apparently aware, since some called for such testing. Most often, Sacco shows, doctors acknowledged that gonorrhea might be sexually transmitted through incest only to dismiss that possible etiology in the cases they discussed. Sheets, toilet seats, mothers’ fingers, playmates, thermometers—everyone and everything except paternal rape was nominated as a plausible source of contagion in the early twentieth century. Doctors readily admitted that gonorrhea in adults and in boys was always sexually transmitted and were hard put to explain why girls, and girls alone, should be vulnerable to nonsexual sources of infection. Yet for decades they insisted that they must be: how else could so many girls become infected? The very frequency with which gonorrheal vulvovaginitis in children raised the specter of incest became a reason to reject it as impossible (125–26).
Sacco interprets Progressive Era doctors as repeatedly turning away from discussions of...