Does incest belong in a novel?

During the process of trying to find a publisher or an agent for Beyond the Horse’s Eye, I was told that I should take incest out of the novel. Some of my buddy writers were also put off, and some even refused to read past the first two pages of the Prologue. Others thought it had no place in a book about lesbian love, because it implied that incest is responsible for women preferring women. I meant no implication, but I didn’t want to be misinterpreted. And I want people to read past the first two pages! (And I founded WordSpace Publications)
So I took incest out.
But: should I have given in?
I am inviting readers to comment.
From an earlier iteration of the Prologue: (Click HERE for published Prologue)

J pulled the covers up to her chin and lay perfectly still. Her bed always gave her away. It made a loud creak every time she moved, even a little bit. She held her breath and listened for every tiny sound. Had she fallen asleep by mistake? She must stay awake to hear the thunder roaring down the hall into her room; his dizzy car sick gasoline stink could rush into her face before she was ready. If she could hear him coming, she could make her body not feel.

When he did come home early and just went to bed, well, then she would just be able to sleep. But first Mommy had to check the room. Under the bed for bears. Push the door flat against the wall so nothing could hide behind it. Close the shade of the fire escape window because shadows from the light outside could become bouncing goblins on the walls. So many things to check. “OK, J, I checked under the bed. No bears. See? No bears. Now close your eyes.” If her singsong voice had that slight “hurry up already” in it, J’s throat would tighten. When Mommy’s voice sounded like that, there’d be no goodnight hug.

Sometimes he didn’t bump down the hall, and later on in the night she would wake up to Mommy crying softly in the bathroom, right next to J’s room. That meant he was finally asleep. Sometimes she’d brave the bears and tiptoe into the bathroom and hold on to Mommy’s back going up and down with her crying. Mommy would be sitting on the bathroom floor next to the tub, her head buried in her arms. She’d just hold Mommy a little bit because Mommy didn’t like hugging, and then she’d tiptoe back to bed before Mommy shooed her away. Sometimes Mommy got really mad right away; that was worse. Mostly she just squeezed Mommy’s crying out of her brain.

Once Daddy’s yelling and thumping had been so loud, the policemen came. J pretended she was asleep when they came into her room, her cheek burning hot when one of them called Mommy “ma’am” and said what a cute little girl she had. Another time, somebody knocked on the pipes. Daddy’s yelling suddenly hushed. Then he was crashing pots in the kitchen. “I’ll show you who to bang at!” as he smashed them against the pipes. Maybe that’s when the policemen came.

Now Daddy was coming home late again. She held her breath real tight so she could hear even the tiniest sound from down the hall. Her room was separated from the living room (where her parents slept) by a long hall. The door to the apartment was in the hall just before the living room.

Keys falling. “Shit!. Motha fuckin’….” A bump, jangling keys, clickity-click-click, followed by the kur-thump of the closing door. Down the hall from the living room, Mommy in singsong: “Shh, the child’s asleep. Here let me get that.” J could smell him now. Smoky gasoline and vomitty. She hated his smelly greasy fingers. Mommy called him a ‘grease monkey,’ but not to his face. He always had black under his nails, and J couldn’t understand why he would rub and rub his hands with that stinky Lava soap that only made him more stinky but didn’t take away the black from under his nails.

Now she shivered as she pushed herself further under the covers: first her neck, then her chin. She pushed her lips tighter and inched until the tip of her blanket touched her nose. Her bed creaked louder than ever.

She stiffened at the roar rolling down the hall to her room. Smelled his grey gasoline coveralls roaring towards her door, saw in her mind the red and blue flying horse and “Mobil” stitched neatly on his greasy pocket. She closed her eyes as tight as she could and turned off. This time, without really trying, she left her body altogether and went floating up to the ceiling. From there she watched him in the semi-darkness as he yanked her covers off. J desperately looked for her Mommy in her head, in that magic way her head sometimes saw things in another room. There down the hall, Mommy was smoking a cigarette. “Just relaxing,” Mommy would say when she smoked a cigarette or sipped a glass of sherry. She wished Mommy would just come in and hold her tight. Just this once.

From high on the ceiling, clutching the ridges of the light fixture, J watched him pull her pajamas bottoms off and heard his breathing quicken. Her fingers were suddenly very slippery. In desperation she flapped her arms in order to stay way above the bed, which worked for a second before she toppled head first into herself.

The child, now stiff and numb, prepared herself for the funny feeling that always came next. The funny feeling made her hate and love him all at the same time.

Then he was suddenly gone and she rolled herself up in a tiny ball under her covers and tried to be very very good. No crying. The house was extremely quiet—too quiet for crying. She strained to hear familiar voices from the living room, or Mommy crying in the bathroom. Anything. She tried looking into the living room with her brain but her magic looking wouldn’t do it.

If only her lady would come to her now. She imagined her lady’s strong and loving hand and placed it on her back, still throbbing from his weight. She heard her lady’s fairy angel words in her ear, and allowed her loving embrace to roll though her back and up into her throat and spill out in a silent crying ecstasy. She made her lady disappear so that she could make her come to her again. In her head she made her lady say, “My poor little baby girl. Everything’s going to be OK now; you’ll see.” Then she made her lady just hold her tight so she could silently cry herself to sleep in her lady’s loving arms.

No, a better idea. Maybe she could pretend her lady helps her get onto the fire escape, and helps her brave the goblins, and then she could dangle her feet through the bars of the fire escape like she always did during the day. And it would feel so good, hanging her legs between the fire escape bars, pee-pee and tummy pressed against the bars, real hard, five stories up. Falling without falling. Surging from her toes to her throat. If the goblins killed her, it wouldn’t matter because then Daddy would never ever do it to her again!

And then Mommy and Daddy would really miss her and would love her oh so much. And Mommy and Daddy would forgive her for being so ugly and dirty, and they would cry like they did when Bubba died.

But before she lets the fire escape goblins get her, she will think up her hugging lady for one last time. Her lady will make her braver. And when she makes it all the way to the fire escape, she’ll quickly hang her feet over the edge and fall without falling before the goblins swoop down and kill her. Such wonderful tingly feelings to die with.

First she searched around her bed and found her pajama bottoms. Then she thought up her lady, put her lady’s hand on her back, and scooted barefoot past the bears (waiting under her bed to grab her ankles) towards the nightmare shadows at the window, very quickly and quietly, so Mommy and Daddy wouldn’t hear anything. By the time she climbed out on the fire escape, she felt dizzy. She sat down, trying to hide from the goblins that were surely very near by, and eased her tushy towards the bars. She pushed each leg out through separate openings until they swayed freely over the alleyway five stories down. Falling without falling.

Maybe it was very late or very early, because the George Washington Bridge trucks were not humm humm humming. Maybe she just didn’t hear them.

This time, when her cry rippled from her spine into her neck and into her throat, while she was falling without falling from the fire escape, J was sure her lady’s hand stroked her head for real. J’s eyes were wet. Her chin was wet. Her cheeks burned hot. And she very much wanted to open her eyes. But she didn’t dare. She didn’t want her make-believe, maybe real live angel lady to go away. And she didn’t.

Then she allowed herself to be lifted and she walked with her lady, her eyes squeezed tight, like she was asleep but awake.

17 Responses to Outtakes

  • Someone needs to write a book about this topic: But here are some beginning thoughts which I put in two areas: 1) Does incest belong in a novel? 2) Should you have taken the incest scene out of your novel?
    1. The novel is a productive place for a difficult (taboo) topic to be aired if it figures in the emotional and dramatic events and characterizations of the story. Expressing transgression in sexual and religious practices and beliefs will always be rejected (outlawed) by those most threatened by them. But when it was taboo to write about gay love did we stop writing about it in novels? When women and children are slaughtered and raped do we stop writing about it in novels? All the horrors and glories humans are capable of need to be named and revealed and examined if we are to develop at all. The novel can be a healthy setting for this kind of needed examination and truth-telling.

    2. If a publisher said to you, “I’ll publish your novel if you take out the incest scene” , it’s understandable you might opt to do so. Or if you were advised to take out the scene so that a publisher (or agent) might take your book, that too is understandable. But if you truly felt the scene should stay as written and yet were emotionally “black-mailed” into taking it out, so the book would be received by a large audience that is a challenging balancing act to respond to. Since you published the novel yourself, I feel you have the right and duty to decide what goes in and what doesn’t. In reading again the scene you took out, my reaction is this: the behavior of the father as depicted by the child already implies his potential to rape (sexually abuse) his daughter. So why not get it out in the open and ‘call it as it is!’ I use the word rape instead of incest because incest, denoting unchaste relations between family members does not necessarily infer the forced sexual groping/entry as you depict in your scene.

    That you have opened this topic up for general discussion is to be lauded as your process of being in charge of your novel’s content as the Publisher of this brave, exciting, exploratory novel. Comment by Jeri Hilderley

  • Ronnie Tuft says:

    I didn’t know that rape and incest were in the category of ‘taboo’. What you depicted (so beautifully from a child’s point of view) was child-rape, and it is appearing more often in our newspapers and magazine articles. It is definitely in the public awareness, today. I am surprised that someone would persuade you to delete that section because it is controversial. What is controversial about it? Child-rape (which you described) is a fact, which we are learning is far too common – not only in India or third world countries, but right here in the USA too.
    I am sorry that you felt compelled to remove that very touching prologue. Sometimes we listen to the wrong voices.

  • Eric G. says:

    Both Neil Gaiman and William Gibson have said that one function of the first chapter is to scare off readers who will not like the rest of the book. For example, the first chapter of American Gods contains a very strange sex scene. Gaiman said he put it up front on purpose, like the sign at an amusement park that says “you must be *this* tall to enjoy this ride.”

    It doesn’t matter what the exact subject is, there are lots of things that will make people put down the book. Calculus, musical notation, drug use, football, anything.

    So if there are going to be lots of scenes like this, then you might as well leave it where it is. But if this scene is anomalous, and putting it up front discourages readers who you think will enjoy the rest of the book, move it later, after you’ve gained their trust.

    Does this horror define J’s life? Even if it’s the springboard for some crucial dramatic action (for example, running away from home), if it’s not on her mind from then on, or a recurring pattern, or the subconscious engine of many later actions, you should tell us about the core of her personality first, before you show us the attempt to destroy it.

    Another way of looking at it: our human nature gives undeserved extra weight to beginnings and endings. If this is the way you start, people will assume you want them to keep it in mind as they read what follows. If that’s not what you want, move it to a different chapter, even if that means making it a flashback.

    Lastly, you are introducing a person to us. In real life, there are a few circumstances where the first thing you would tell us about a person is some calamity: “This is Rose, she survived the Titanic,” or “This is Fred, you’re going to be removing a tumor from his kidney today.”

    Hope that helps.

  • Josh says:

    This is important to talk about.

  • Jeffrey says:

    Artistically, the deleted portion of the prologue is just great; it’s well-written and intriguing and provides insight into the protagonist. It makes me want to read the book, not the opposite.

    But a book is a commercial as well as artistic endeavor. You made the best decision you could under the circumstances and pressures surrounding you. Nobody can say you should done something different. Don’t look back. Anyway, you still have a lot more ink in your pen.

    The Universe is holding you in its embrace.

  • Johnnie Lewis says:

    Incest is. Sexual abuse is. Physical abuse is. The victim lives a lifetime of shame, though the victim did nothing shameful. Incest, sexual abuse, rape, are human conditions. Awful they are, but they are part and parcel of many lived lives. Why must the shame continue? Why must the shame be hidden? Why must the shame be not spoken of? How can one even pose that this be kept from the light of day? I think it is absurd that incest and rape and abuse not be talked or written about. How can an honest writer not write the truth as she sees it?

  • Erik-Anders Nilsson says:

    Every topic should be up for discussion and critique, no matter how taboo, offensive, disturbing or painful. We also should encourage (as is here) sophisticated discussion and include all points of view. While the topic of incest in general is completely off-putting to me, I found the excerpt exceptionally well written.

  • john otto says:

    If you open with the child-rape scene, as RT calls it (that’s what it is), one would expect it to be a defining moment of J’s personality. It might indicate that the entire rest of the sci-fi adventure is the product of some understandable aberration, not just that J’s pleasurable sexual relations are lesbian and with extraterrestrials. If that’s not what you mean to make people believe, then you might have made the right choice to delete it after getting such a negative reaction from your “buddy” readers. Why read to buddies if you are going to ignore what they say; to keep it where it is, right in front, you need a good reason. Also it might detract attention from the social conditions (nuclear war, the Rosenberg case) that you focus on in J’s youth and development.

    Sometimes the taboo of incest (without child rape, among siblings) are the center of novels. In Vladimir Nabokov’s “Ada” an almost perfect heterosexual couple are kept apart by their father for most of the novel; he knows these apparent cousins are really siblings. That’s why he so adamantly keeps separating them. There’s a similar plot line in John Sayles’ movie, Lone Star. Twins in Thomas Mann’s “Der Erwaehlte” (“The Chosen One,” in English this was published as “The Holy Sinner”) have an incestuous relationship. Bertrand Tavernier’s film “Beatrice” shows a brutal father-daughter incest that is essential to the plot. In all these cases, the incest is necessary to the story. In “Beyond the Horse’s Eye,” the scene, well-written as it is, doesn’t seem to fit the needs of the story, or at least the story doesn’t need it.

    So then I agree with JH that it’s your choice. Maybe it should be the start of a second novel.

  • Lallan Schoenstein says:

    Incest is a common human relationship, one forbidden by social mores. Not all incest is exploitative, but it is conditioned by ancient mores. Currently the social context of all sexual relationships are based on property relationships under the capitalist system, where exploitation and competition are encouraged. For more see F. Engels, ‘Origin of the Family’)

    What we are talking about here is a very common instance of incest where children are abused by adults. Based on my life experience I’d say abusive sexual relationships abound and it would be practically impossible for a child to escape. Alice Miller’s book ‘The Drama of the Gifted Child’ provides good background on these destructive personal relationships.

    The repression of sexuality orientation is child abuse as damaging as incest. To believe incest changes the expression sexual love is to think there is something wrong with that sexual expression.

    The abuse of children in all forms needs the meet the light of day. It needs to be exposed and recognized for what it is, whether it is the secret sexual abuse a child in the safety of their bed or the bombing of their village. These crimes are related and seem to carry from one generation to the next unless they are forcibly stopped.

    We can’t talk about the crimes against children enough – until we’re rid of them and all people are sexually liberated.

  • Emily Hanlon says:

    Dear Janet
    This book has come from the heart and it is true. There is integrity to being a writer, I believe, and listening to what is true for you is the final validator. I also don’t understand why anyone would say writing about incest is in any way taboo. It isn’t.
    No one can tell you what to write and what should be in your book.
    It’s a beautiful and powerful and unique story.
    Follow your heart.

  • Don gatto says:

    I think it should stay in. Today’s audiences are sophisticated enough to read and understand that incest is very common in today’s society..

  • Laura Collins says:

    I don’t understand the problem???
    Incest exists and is very well described here.

  • Dianne Oakland says:

    Now that I have read a bit of your writing, I really am eager to meet you more than ever. I haven’t yet packed for the trip I am going on tomorrow so I will not be able to give your pages the time they deserve. The scenes were very painful to read because child rape is horrific no matter whether it involves incest or not. J’s dissociation into the fantasy of the protective angel was both sad and moving. Incest is not uncommon from what I understand. What disturbed me most was the fact of an adult having sex with a child. You write beautifully and that, for me trumps all. All writers should be able to express their thoughts even if the subject matter may not suit every audience.

  • Linda Gould says:

    This is such an important topic and you’ve described a child’s experience so eloquently. You’ve written from the heart and it does no good allowing this topic to be kept in the shadows.
    Isn’t that why we’re writers?

  • Steph H says:

    Janet, you have not said who thought the child abuse scene should be deleted, and that is what it is. (Incest can describe a wide range of sexual relations, including adult cousins.) If it was an editor, was this editor with a publisher whose focus of genre materials would encompass your book? If so, it was a directive to resubmit I believe.

    Different publishers have different criteria for the types of genre lit they seek to print.

    I think Eric’s comments were very constructive. Look also at which publishers have printed the authors and works which might be closer in focus and feel to your own. Fantasy and science fiction are become far vaster genres than they once were. There are many types of sci-fi. While I only read the prologue and skimmed, this work is close in feel and perspective to Octavia Butler.

    You might consider writing some short stories next. I’ve heard that’s the more likely route to first getting published.

    Best of luck!

  • Loretta Goldberg says:

    On the subject of incest, it seems profoundly important to the doer and receiver, whether it is an act or an unmet desire. Why not integrate it when it is relevant to the text? By the way, what kin relationships include incest? Does it extend to first cousins? Second cousins?

  • P.S. says:

    Such honest writing.
    I hope it finds a home.
    I loved it.

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