Scott and Jen


By the time my debut novel came out in 2013, I had honed a one-word answer for when people asked me what the book was about: loneliness. Of course, it was about a lot more than that (immortality, magical realism, an enchanted herb, partition-era Poland, World War II, 1940s country music stars), but people can relate to loneliness—who hasn’t felt, at some point in their life, on the outside looking in? But now my second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, has come out, and I’m struggling with that one-word answer. Often, I say the book is about a dysfunctional family, another great sales generator (just ask Jonathan Franzen or Gillian Flynn). That answer feels disingenuous, though, because there is a much more direct (and more uncomfortable), word to describe it: incest. Brother-sister incest, if you want to be really specific.

But when people ask, I chicken out and summarize: “It’s about a dysfunctional family and their summer vacation at their lake cabin.” This description is true, but the heart of the novel is how Sam and her brother, Steve, will address what happened between them in their teens, a decision that has made much of their adult lives aimless and cloudy. But this truthful answer would be an indictment on me, not Sam and Steve. Why would anyone make a conscious decision to write a novel that contained incest between its main character and her brother, particularly someone who has a brother with whom she is close, particularly if she supposedly has no personal knowledge of incest?

Readers are demanding people, and they should be. In a world in which it is easier to power through an entire episode of Candy Crush for a few hours, or to binge watch nine seasons of the X-Files (trust me, I’ve done both), readers want to be rewarded for the active, rather than passive, consumption. They should get something for paying $30 for a hardback or $15 for the paperback. They expect complex, imperfect characters, unpredictable plots, impossible conflict, and prosaic writing. They also expect, even in fiction, for you have a command of your subject matter–whether you are writing about mental illness like Wally Lamb in She’s Come Undone or pedophilia like Alissa Nutting in Tampa, they expect you to get your facts straight.

But what is our responsibility, as writers, to our subject matter and our readers? In an age when authors are also marketers, when staking out a niche and becoming the definitive book in that market is imperative, is it irresponsible to write a book about incest when I am not a survivor of one? In the context of my other books, that claim seems completely unreasonable. Was it irresponsible to write about immortality in my debut novel, The Tide King, because I’m mortal? Was it irresponsible of me, in my couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now, to write about a developmentally disabled boy who kills a teenaged girl because I am neither? Or two women in a May-December relationship, because I’ve experienced no such romance?

bastard out of carolinaEven though I’m not the first to write about incest, you can imagine how many tissues I’ve twisted into lumpen paper mache unicorns like the Gaff in Blade Runner, wondering what my angle is. Dorothy Allison heartbreakingly writes about the sexual abuse she suffered, over parts of twelve years, at the hands of her stepfather in her semi-autobiographical debut, Bastard Out of Carolina. But, of course, that relationship was not consensual, and I’m certain the naming of this terrible act with words, on paper, was cathartic, a way to transform isolated, shameful pain into beauty. And when Donna Tartt included brother-sister love in her debut novel, the suspenseful and lush The Secret History, it wasn’t exactly central to the plot.

But other literary giants, such as Vladimir Nabokov and Ian McEwan, have explored brother-sister love much more centrally. Ada, or Ardor: A Chronicle of Time, Nabokov’s last and most ambitious novel, is about many things: it’s a sci-fi steampunk chronicle about the inhabitants of a planet called Antiterra, a puzzle box of clues to other great works, an exploration of the meaning of time, and a Proustian memoir about siblings Van and Ada Veen, aristocrats and scientists, and ironically, the love of each other’s lives. Although reviews were mixed when it was published in 1969, the long affair between Van and Ada, beginning when they were fourteen and twelve, respectively (and sometimes intermingled with a third party—their younger half-sister, Lucette), did little to mar Nabokov’s reputation. After all, the man wrote Lolita fourteen years before, in 1955. I can’t exactly take solace in Nabokov getting away with incest when, let’s face it, he was a brilliant, mystical writer who got away with whatever he wanted. He was seventy years old when Ada was released, and I couldn’t find, in my research, whether anyone had ever asked him what the deal with Van and Ada was. Maybe, by his great talent and fame, he’d become inoculated for having to justify anything he’d write then onward, even if it was about kittens in bondage.

Not so for Ian McEwan, who was 30 when his first novel, The Cement Garden, was published in 1978. In it, the abdication of parental authority (from the death of both parents) creates a crisis in when the four siblings—fourteen-year-old Jack, seventeen-year-old Julie,  thirteen-year-old Sue, six-year-old Tom—conspire to bury their mother (who dies just after their father) by encasing her in cement in the basement to avoid being split up by social services. This unusual situation not only supplies great dramatic tension to the slim novel, but also introduces a subfamily structure in which brothers and sisters turn into parents, protectors, and lovers.

Did McEwan worry about the themes in his first novel, about being called to task concerning his expertise in the matter? Not that I know of. In an interview with The Paris Review, he says that he “was toying with ideas about children trying to survive without adults.” If McEwan received any criticism about the book, it was because it made readers feel icky, not because it was taboo or about incest. In fact, it’s reported that his first two novels, The Cement Garden and also The Comfort of Strangers, earned him the nickname “Ian McAbre,” for their dark, gothic subject matter. (Perhaps McEwan got the last laugh, though: The Cement Garden was adapted into a film in 1993 and London production was staged in 2014.)

adaBut I wondered how the idea of survival, as McEwan explained in The Paris Review, evolved into incest between the oldest brother, Jack, and the oldest sister, Julie. Why introduce a topic that would make readers so, well, squeamish? McEwan’s response also implies that he followed his writer’s instinct, consciously and subconsciously, and let his characters, their circumstances, come to him, and not any desire to make a particular statement:

One afternoon as I was at my desk, these four children, with their distinct identities, suddenly rose before my imagination. I didn’t have to build them up—they appeared ready-made. I wrote some quick notes, then fell into a deep sleep. When I woke, I knew that at last I had the novel I wanted to write. I worked obsessively for a year, paring the material back all the time because I wanted the novel to be brief and intense.

I had followed similar instincts, I realized, when writing The Summer She Was Under Water. When I look over my first drafts, incest wasn’t even included. The main character, Sam, who has just broken up with her fiancé, is spending the summer with her family at their cabin on the lake and is increasingly drawn to Eve, an unlikely friend she meets after getting matrimonial cold feet. When I put the novel in a drawer to work on other things, it had the makings of a very standard lesbian coming-out novel. In the years between, I wrote a surrealistic novella, A Water Moon, about a man who finds himself pregnant. The pregnancy is actually symbolic of some heavy truths he must carry to term. Although the structure, subject, and language were so completely different from Summer, somehow, the two felt connected to me. (Interestingly, Nabokov’s Ada is also rumored to comprise two separate books on which he was working—The Texture of Tim and Letters from Terra—that he wove together from 1966 to 1968.)

Like McEwan, I decided to sleep on it. And when I woke up, Sam began to tell me her real troubles. Did I care that it became clear to me when I revisited Summer that Sam wasn’t having cold feet because she was a repressed lesbian, but because she had suppressed this brief incestuous relationship with her brother, Steve, after they could no longer depend on their mentally ill, alcoholic father and well-meaning but willfully-in-denial mother?

I don’t know.

Summer She Was Under Water front only for screenWhen I’m writing, I try not to think too hard about it—not what other people will think, and especially not what I think. When I’m writing, it often feels like I’m in a trance, and I’m just following the characters into the places they want to go. Sometimes stories come to me fully formed in dreams and I just transcribe them, not knowing whether they are Freudian puzzles, unrequited longings, or a pastiche of waking thoughts that my nocturnal storyteller tries to combine in a cohesive narrative.  And as writers, we all learn pretty early that we don’t write what we think should happen to the characters, because they will thwart us every time. We hear “Janey is a good, responsible girl caring for her dying mother” in our head, and our fingers are typing out “Janey is snorting heroin in a club in DC” instead. So we listen very hard and we try to write their desires, their struggles and decisions.

But is Sam’s truth real, or representative, of other, real-world instances of brother-sister incest? Her story, unfortunately, wasn’t something I could necessarily fact-check by reading the last twelve years of The Journal of Abnormal Psychology on Lexis Nexus. Nor did I feel comfortable pilfering other people’s experiences from online support groups. I write to understand things, and I couldn’t just reappropriate someone else’s story. As Tolstoy once said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What drove Sam to this intimacy with her brother Steve may have had its origins in an unstable, abusive family environment, much like many stories of incest, but what particular dangers and tragedies drove Sam and Steve to make this particular choice, to feel, on some level, it was integral to their survival, is wholly their own.

Did it mean I didn’t think about my own relationship with my brother? Do I worry about what he will think about the book? After all, when my brother read a story I published in which I mentioned a boat salesman brother who masturbated in the garage as a teen, he jokingly said, “I’m Jerry in that, aren’t I?” (Note: My brother doesn’t sell boats, and I don’t remember ever catching him in the act in the garage.)  Although I rarely explore my relationship with my brother in my work, we were extremely close growing up, and not just because we are twins. Our alcoholic father left when we were fourteen. Our mother spent many years after he left doing some drinking herself. She was in and out of hospitals until she died two years ago of liver-related illness. From this, my brother and I spent a lot of time on our own and with each other. We didn’t have any close friends at school to relate our troubles (protective of our family, maybe we preferred it that way). But we always had a connection that other people couldn’t define at first. We saw movies together, concerts, lived and worked at the beach together one summer. People who didn’t know us always thought we were dating. Sometimes I wonder, even now, when we go out to dinner or to the movies or store, whether people think we’re married. There’s an ease and comfort and protection we give each other, and maybe in some ways, I thought the same of Sam and Steve.

Unlike Sam and Steve, though, the comfort we gave was never sexual. But I have often thought about the roles into which we morph when the traditional family structure falls apart. For instance, even though I came out years ago and have a long-term partner, I still know in my head that I will never let my brother go, that he is the mother and father I didn’t always have. When he talked about moving to LA next year, I immediately thought whether my partner get a job transfer, whether we could all live together on the West Coast. I know that my brother is the most important piece of family left in my life. I wonder, since he’s been single for a long, long time, if he thinks the same of me, whether there is a bond between us because of our upbringing that even a spouse or girlfriend can’t lay claim to. So I got Sam and Steve, the essence of their connection, even if their relationship went into a slightly different direction than mine and my brother’s.

Secret historyBut Sam and Steve aren’t the ones reading the book reviews or standing at a podium, reading their story, at a bookstore in Kansas. They’re not skimming internet discussion boards, reading about the nerve of some author to act like she’s knows about incest. Would Nabokov have been invited on Dr. Phil if Ada had been published fifty years later, to talk about the culture of brother-sister incest, to lend his expertise and authority on the subject? Probably not. And if he had, he would have declined, because, of course, as writers, our responsibilities aren’t really to our readers or the groups of people depicted in our novels, whether they are survivors of the holocaust or have anorexia or are serial killers or incest survivors. Our responsibilities are to our characters, our stories. Just like Nabokov and McEwan and Tartt and the millions of other writers who have examined difficult, maybe unpopular, themes, I am not, and never can be, an expert on anything. Even though I strive to “get my facts straight,” to make my work as authentic as possible, there is no one definitive experience—in fiction or in real life. If I do have a responsibility to my readers, it’s to be the best spokesperson for my characters, to make them as fully realized as possible, to discover their hard truths and not shy away from them.

If readers are moved in some way—even revulsion—by my fidelity to the truth of Sam and Steve’s story, or of any of my characters, then I’ve succeeded as a writer. And that’s all I am—a writer who tells stories. That is not to say I’m not invested in my stories. All fiction writers are. Our stories are our children, our art. Sometimes they’re our legacy. But we don’t speak for the world, or a group, or sometimes even ourselves when we write fiction. In the end, we’re speaking for the people on the pages. We make sure their voice is heard—all of the ugly, searing, beautiful, and hard truths. And maybe we learn a little bit about ourselves, as well, in the process.

My brother hasn’t asked me what my novel is about. Maybe it’s because he knows me, or because he knows better than to ask. Most likely, though, it’s because he doesn’t need to.


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JEN MICHALSKI’s second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, was published by Queens Ferry press in August. She lives in Baltimore.

2 responses to “The Hard Truths of Writing: Incest in Fiction”

  1. todd Pratum says:

    Everything was great in this till I got to: “Unlike Sam and Steve, though, the comfort we gave was never sexual” and now I’m confused. Loved all the analysis but it’s hard to understand how you could write that book, with that theme, and not have experienced it. Or maybe with that line you’re protecting family. Thankfully I have no family to protect and can write freely.

    • Savannah Grey says:

      How did Stephen King write all of his novels? Was he ever a teenager girl who was harassed and bullied in high school? Did he have a car that was possessed? Did he get kidnapped by one of his crazy fans after a car accident?

      Part of being a writer is expanding to topics you’re not familiar with. It’s what makes fiction so fascinating.

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