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Discourse 25.1&2 (2003) 138-165

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Seduction by Law:
Sexual Property and Testimonial Possession in Thereafter Johnnie

Gillian Harkins

I don't, I don't, I don't, I just don't understand my daughters. What happened? Tell me what happened? (Thereafter Johnnie 66)
What happened? It was slavery. And white and black are so close. And dark and light are so close. And someone's white grandfather buried someone's black grandfather after those slaves sang that song and died. Truth. Freedom . . . It was slavery that happened and I read the story in a book. Who buried whom? Is the story over? (Thereafter Johnnie 173).

In Carolivia Herron's 1991 novel Thereafter Johnnie, none of the five main characters comprising the protagonist's family are able to grasp the meaning of the past any more than they are able to relinquish their insistence on its hold upon them in the present. As the above epigraphs suggest, the central characters of the novel are haunted by an unfinished past—the generations distant past of African American slavery, certainly, but also the contemporary past in which an episode of father-daughter incest has destroyed the [End Page 138] Snowdon family at the end of the twentieth century. Following an affair between daughter Patricia and father John Christopher Snowdon, the birth of a daughter, Johnnie, leads to the dissolution of the family and allows for the irruption of the past into the present. This late twentieth century episode of reproductive incest seems to call forth earlier episodes of incestuous reproduction during slavery, linking the two "pasts" of the Snowdon family through the repetition of incest. Figuring out the relationship between these two pasts becomes a kind of obsession for the novel's protagonists—particularly for John Christopher and Patricia, the father and daughter who find themselves drawn into an incestuous affair marked by its irresolvable roots in forgotten history.

But despite this obsession with finding out the "story" of "what happened," the novel is decidedly unclear about the relationship between the historical violence of slavery and the contemporary crisis caused by father-daughter incest. Even as each member of the Snowdon family insists that the past has produced their crisis in the present, the status of "the actual past" (123), as Stephen Knapp puts it in "Collective Memory and the Actual Past," remains highly indeterminate. Thus, despite that fact that everyone in the family insists that "what happened" necessitates historical excavation and explanation, no one is able to agree on precisely what history is or how it might impact the errant desires of present-day kin. As Johnnie exclaims in frustration, "History doesn't help. Slavery won't go away" (174). Characters cannot figure out how the irruption of incest in their present lives plays out the historical violence that haunts their family, and in the absence of knowledge John Christopher and Camille Snowdon, along with daughters Patricia, Cynthia Jane, Eva, and Johnnie, produce a series of stories about the violence of history. In stories spanning two hundred years of US history and combining biblical, epic, and romantic parables of incest, the Snowdon family comes to narrate its genealogy as the inheritance of incest, from the rape of Patricia's great-grandmother Laetitia by her father/master during enslavement, to the childhood "seduction" or molestation of Patricia by her father John Christopher, to Patricia's adolescent and adult sexual pursuit of her father under the guise of biblical re-enactment.

In keeping with the growing field of trauma studies, it might seem appealing to read this novel as testimony to the impact of historical trauma. Recent trauma studies have argued that trauma signals a breakdown in the historical conditions through which subjects know and narrate their experience. According to these [End Page 139] accounts, trauma is precisely that which remains outside the domain of historical representation, a "gap" in knowable history that requires a more figurative testimonial agency to world it back into existence. As Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub argue in Testimony: Crises in Witnessing, trauma is a type of "extreme limit...


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