Victor Bloom MD
We are only three months into the new millennium (according to many) and I have seen four rather highly rated movies that touched on the issue of incest. Maybe a few of them were in the last months of 1999, but the concentration of films acknowledging the presence of incest is, if nothing else, remarkable.
The first is "The General's Daughter" in which the general's daughter was on maneuvers with other infantrymen and was gang-raped. The incestuous quality of the father-daughter relationship was exemplified by father telling daughter to keep this quiet. He did not want to besmirch the reputation of Army training. Instead of consoling her and being empathic, he relegated her to the role of object. As a result, her life became self-destructive in symbolically repeating the episode, trying to convey the horror of her trauma without using words.
The second is "Cider House Rules" where the teenage orphan learned how to be a doctor from a kindly abortionist. The boy refused to perform abortions, and that decision seemed to be a steadfast resolve. It was until he came across a girl whose life was about to be ruined if she bore a child conceived in incest with her father. The young man took out his medical instruments and delivered her from a tragic fate. The movie was an argument for situational ethics and moral relativism.
The third is "Magnolia" where death-bed confessions led to admission of incestuous behavior which had been a lifelong secret. In her aged husband's final moments his long-suffering wife learned that he had also cheated on her. She quickly came to a realization of why their daughter was so distant from them. Disillusioned and heartbroken, she hated her dying husband.
The fourth is "War Zone," a British film which played this weekend in the DFT (Detroit Film Theater) which is in the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts). In this film the incest was graphically represented, in all its sordidness and pain. Reviewers have been unanimous in praising its courage in presenting this taboo theme. Also praised was the quality of the acting performances, such that each person was believable, showing motions appropriate to an agonizing family situation. Interestingly, the father was first shown to be a happy-go-lucky guy, that is, until he was confronted with the truth, at which time he became threatening and dangerous. The first impression is almost that of a happy family, comfortable with each other, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The fact that the family had moved to a remote area made the setting timeless. The story could have taken place in medieval times, when family members were in a confined dark space together and could inevitably experience the eroticism and sexuality of other family members. Isolated from the larger society and social pressure, family members reverted to taboo behavior, especially at the behest of a powerful and unscrupulous father.
In the past there was a smattering of films dealing with or touching on the problem of incest, but nothing like the present concentration. The Louis Malle movie, "Murmurs of the Heart," depicted an incestuous involvement between an intoxicated mother and son in a lighthearted way. It was an accident. It would never happen again. They would never mention this to anyone. It would be their special secret. The movie was creative because what happened was presented in such a way that it attracted empathy rather than condemnation.
What is the significance, you may be asking, of the numerous attempts of the motion picture industry to present to the paying public stories involving incest? Incest is not a popular or charming subject. It is one of the more abhorrent universals in the darkest side of the human condition. Freud had an explanation of the origin of the incest taboo in his controversial "Totem and Taboo," in which he conjectured that during the Stone Age, before religion, when the young and strong sons killed the father to have the mother and sisters, they became overwhelmed with guilt. They realized that they had extinguished the most valued member of the tribe, and they were bereft, and so they developed the incest taboo. According to Freud, this taboo came about long before organized religion, and it is interesting that incest is so taboo, that it is not even mentioned in the Ten Commandments.
Psychiatrists know that incest and the molestation of children is far more prevalent than most people believe or would care to think. Basic Freudian thinking goes back to the Greek classic, "Oedipus Rex," about the king who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. Interestingly, most contemporary playwrights rate the Sophocles' tragedy as the greatest play of all time. It's dramatic appeal has continued through the ages.
I think Freud's influence on 20th century thinking took a hundred years to soften the defenses of denial and repression, to loosen the tight grip of silence, and generate an audience which now can consider what was formerly, unthinkable, unspeakable.
Dr Bloom is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University School of Medicine. He is a member of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and on the editorial board of the Wayne County Medical Society. He welcomes comments at his email address--- firstname.lastname@example.org.