South Mountain and Other Stories of Incest

Dolly Parton battles stereotypes of the mountain hollows where she comes from by making jokes onstage about horny hillbillies and not knowing who’s friend and who’s a cousin. I recall years ago before embarking ‘on the road’ that I was warned by various alarmed friends about the inbred hillbilly communities in Kentucky and Tennessee backwoods. Thing is, we’ve got our very own hillbillies right here at home in Canada.

On South Mountain: the Dark Secrets of the Goler Clan chronicles the story of isolation, poverty, and yes, inbreeding on South Mountain in Nova Scotia. It’s a particularly harrowing history, and though the lurid details are told as tastefully as possible, court transcripts and victim or perp statements are stomach-turning. It seems these filthy barbarians weren’t choosy about age, gender, hygiene or holes, and raped their children, nieces and nephews indiscriminately.

Of course we are bound to feel revulsion at the unspeakable acts of backward folk like the Golers, but after a landmark book like this one, it’s too easy to dismiss incest as the legacy only of isolated mountain or farming people. It would have been illuminating if David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, the authors, had given some background on incest and abuse occurrences. Rich socialite families are just as likely to harbour child abuse as any others, and there are many poor, hardworking, “hick” families who live a simple life and do not fuck their children.

Regardless of the demonic lust to which the Golers apparently gave free reign, the book is interesting for more reasons than the lurid topic matter. It’s a portrait of   centuries of secrecy and isolation, of backwoods people and how they live.  Clans like the Golers are a fascinating subculture of people who are entirely self-sufficient through life and death (only recently did welfare happen despite the unemployment rates).  They keep to themselves and often hide their sins behind small county churches (not that different from us on that one!)

The authors succeed in a portrait that reveals why it was impossible to stop the incest and almost futile to try. Many were victims first and most didn’t consider it abuse. Every last arrested pedophile detailed how badly the victim was begging for it, uttering their most literate sentences, hence revealing that their only education was likely porn. Other issues came to life, like what to do with the abused children and how to help them? Removing children from danger was difficult with barely enough foster homes to go around, and we all know how abuse-free foster homes can be. The kids all wanted to return home. The outside world didn’t understand them. Some of them were intelligent, but many were mentally “defective’ or “feeble” – old euphemisms for handicapped in some way due to poverty and inbreeding. Many of those who acted most like animals were products of a brother and sister or some such shocking liaison, but it’s hard to make that official when the births, deaths, and graves of the Golers happened outside of Canadian paperwork.

Though charges were laid that should have resulted in thousands of years of jail time, even the worst offenders got only a couple years of square meals and then were unleashed once more. Rehabilitating highly functioning offenders is one thing- but many Golers were verging on mentally retarded, and probably quite randy after being locked away for a few months or years. Back up the mountain they went. The Canadian justice system was revealed to be pitifully inadequate in dealing with the problem. The solution is elusive, however-  how can such a thing be healed when it goes back two centuries or more? How the hell do we think people will turn out when their great-grandma is a prostitute and their daddy is also their granddaddy? And what can be done about it? At least the authors tried to get it out into the open, perhaps encouraging others to come forward.

This work definitely attempts to be more anthropology and history than true crime pulp. Kudos for trying to sort out the Goler family tree- (difficult enough to sort accurately for ‘normal’ family lines- we never consider how statistically frequent it is for a woman to bear a child that was not fathered by the assumed gentleman). It’s a unique portrait of a subculture. It was also courageous to attempt to end some secrecy surrounding things that are absolutely our business, though we politely turn our heads when we don’t know what to do. Perhaps we can learn some of the different ways of handling the dark truths from fiction- I think some great works of literature can do wonders more than any ‘sensitivity training.’ With their fictional guise, we can look without flinching and learn more about people’s hearts and how incest might affect them.

Alice Walker stepped out bravely with the Color Purple, a text that was out loud about a lot of things: child abuse, treatment of women, wife battery, lesbianism, poverty, racial politics and problems, and a whole lot more. It won the Pulitzer Prize. I would insist that every single human being needs to read The Color Purple, but if you are lazy or for some reason shy away from brilliant feminist writers, you can check out the Broadway musical. I would love to catch Fantasia and Lakisha Jones, two amazing Idol talents who I think would bring tremendous passion to their roles.

Then there’s the exquisite Insects and Angels, or Morpho Eugenia, one of A.S. Byatt’s most intricate and intriguing works.  The novella is a modern Victorian, with genteel characters and subtle parallels. Such a sophisticated treatment of the incest theme goes a long way toward dispelling any notions that these secrets only take place among the poor and squalid. The main character works as naturalist, studying ants and other fascinating insect worlds, and providing interesting contextual imagery as a backdrop for the book’s many bombshells.

Perhaps consensual incest is even more disturbing than the hideous but “understandable” world of violent coercion, which seems fitting in the cycle of abuse. I’ve long believed that the incest taboo is necessary because there must be some people in our surroundings from whom we are guaranteed a lack of sexual chemistry or hunger toward or from. Within our families we should be free of the subtle and strong undercurrents that flow in our workplace, schools, social circles, even in-laws. Surprising desire pops up at the most inconvenient times, confounding our lives with complications. How wonderfully refreshing to be free of potentially radical insanity that our hormones can induce. I mean, it’s possible that I might fall in love with my therapist or doctor or waiter: worse if I suddenly have the hots for a married man and woe unto me if I should fall for one of my best friends. But this is just not something I even need to worry about when my sister and I have lunch and chase after her three kids. It simply won’t arise when I head to Tim Hortons with my dad. I view the incest taboo as a necessary cushion of protection that belongs inside families. In a sense, we are then even protected from our strangest impulses.

But not always, Byatt’s book reveals, classily. This darkness is also out there, and what to do if you are in the midst of it? Can social mores and norms really impose on biology? If everything goes, doesn’t this go too, so long as everybody’s up for it? My gut says no, no, no- this violates sacred boundaries no matter how ‘of sound mind’ the consenters are. But then, incest’s legacy is the injury of boundaries, and it can permeate the future and desires of those it harms.

Writer Kathryn Harrison brought some of this difficult mess into the open with The Kiss, a stunning and poetic account of her consensual sexual affair with her father. As beautifully written as it was, I was uncomfortable the whole way through, and maybe that’s healthy. It seems confessing this darkness helped the writer emerge into light, and she went on to be a highly successful and prolific writer.

Jane Smiley also won a Pulitzer, for her astounding A Thousand Acres. Smiley’s not the only one who saw the incest themes running through Shakespeare’s King Lear, and this novel might be considered a deconstruction of the play. While not everyone has interpreted King Lear’s yearning for his youngest daughter as perversity, it’s hard not to, and Smiley’s writing has many undercurrents from Will’s classic.

The Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block also deserves mention. It’s a young adult novel, complex and intelligent enough for adult readers.

Among the best fiction I’ve ever read is The Shipping News, a book much bigger than simply the shock of its theme, which is an important but almost minor layer of the everyday struggles of fate in the characters’ lives. E. Annie Proulx was seriously inspired here and the language and the somehow vivid gray that colours the east coast landscape are truly transporting. And umm, this one also won a Pulitzer. 

It sure seems that throwing in a bit of incest makes your book a sure bet for that prize. However, there were in fact no major awards for V.C. Andrews’ mass-selling poor little rich girl soaps. Beginning with Flowers in the Attic and now an industry of its own long after the original author passed on, you can count on incest. There’s a whole host of family tragedies from kidnapping to infidelity to mentally defective orphans tortured in turrets. Though the books are lurid, detail-hungry sickfests, I certainly won’t denounce our culture’s favourite fairy tales. Not everyone can plod their way through the challenging slow pace of Angels and Insects or the intellectual rigor of Shakespeare. While these books are insipid, vacant, and overly dramatic, their twisted accounts of madness and manipulation mixed with all those family secrets aren’t necessarily so far off the mark.

Lorette C. Luzajic