Writing the Wrong - Exploring Consensual Incestuous Love in Clutching Shadow through Masters by Research Degree

Lesley McKenna

'Pleasure is so close to ruinous waste that we refer to the moment of climax as a little death. Consequently, anything that suggests erotic excess always implies disorder… brutality and murder are steps in the same direction.' (Georges Bataille. Eroticism. 1962)

The acts described within the works of Bataille (Story of the Eye) de Sade (100 Days of Sodom) and Pauline Reage (Story of O) are 'forbidden' fantasies. By reading this material, readers who would not play them out in their daily lives can safely share them. As Bataille suggests in the quote above from his book, Eroticism, these works seem to communicate with some deep-seated instinct within the human psyche that links sexuality with pain - either physical or in the emotional pain/pleasure associated within a sub/dom scenario - and/or death. This duality interests me, because these issues still seem to be relatively taboo. With this in mind, I decided to write a piece that would confront the reader with something that would challenge them both intellectually and ethically. I decided I would employ the universal sexual taboo of incest, combined with the elements of a sub/dom relationship and abuse, as the transgressions my characters were committing. This piece was to become Clutching Shadow, an exploration of consensual incest between brother and sister, Jez and Lex Sinclair.

Forbidden sexuality and sexual behaviour are subjects that have always interested me and as a writer of Erotica, I constantly find myself drawn toward the ‘darker’ aspects of the genre. Taking the Erotica module in my third year of the Creative Writing undergraduate degree forced me to confront/explore these issues and I wanted to take it further through undertaking the Masters by Research degree that the university offered. Because this was entirely research based, I was effectively given the freedom to work as I chose, with a subject I chose. I found this a huge benefit, since I’ve always been a solitary writer, rather than one who collaborates.

Despite our apparently more accepting and increasingly sexualised society, traditional mores are still in general expected to be adhered to. Who decides what is 'right' or 'wrong', and why are people so afraid of difference?

I wanted to confront readers by creating a work that is challenging - possibly uncomfortable - to read; I deal with the taboo of incest as though it's a (tragic) love story. Through the text I raise these questions: Why is incest wrong if it's consensual, especially in these days when contraception is widely available and there is little risk of genetic abnormality? Why do we 'fall in love' with people who are 'unsuitable' – in society’s eyes there can be little more unsuitable than a sexual relationship between brother and sister. And why do we go back to these people even when we know they're probably going to abuse us again (in this case, Lex returns to her brother, Jez the Narcissistic manipulator, repeatedly)? Is this really 'love' or is it a desire for the safety of the familiar?

Because I was working toward two formally assessed pieces – the creative work and the accompanying academic thesis – I had to be very clear regarding the aims and objectives of both texts. This helped me to focus more on the initial questions I was asking. Eventually, this what I decided I wanted:

To create, via a fictional narrative, a morally ambiguous piece of work that explores, preferably without author judgement, various issues of transgressive sexuality, in particular: incest; child abuse; sexual obsession; and emotional domination/submission.

I decided to present these relationships from the incestuous lovers' POVs, with no external viewpoint, the aim of this to give a claustrophobic atmosphere to the piece that relates to their constrictive relationship, and to show how incest – according to some psychologists such as Estela V. Weldon (Mother, Madonna, Whore – The Idealization and Denigration of Motherhood) – might be seen as a ‘mirroring’, masturbatory act based on the familial bond.

I wanted to show, via the medium of fiction, how Lex, the female protagonist, still suffers the effects of sexual abuse inflicted on her during her childhood. Despite the fact that she is in love with her brother, she is partially aware that her feelings for him are not 'normal', but abuse is all she knows. Incest, abuse, submission and domination, make up her 'normality' and she cannot/does not want to change this.

I wanted their relationship to be erotic, and the relationship between Lex and Jez, is written as highly erotically charged, with growing sexual tension throughout. This was not written from any particular desire to titillate; the intention was to draw the reader into Lex and Jez's world, and to hopefully induce the notion that they were a 'real' couple in a 'real' sexual relationship, and perhaps to question - if only for a short time - if what they were doing was really wrong.

I needed to explore published texts and compare their treatment of incestuous eroticism with my own. During my research I read many texts dealing with this theme, including work by Angela Carter - ''Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest', 'Peter and the Wolf' - from Burning Your Boats (1996 collection); and her novel The Magic Toyshop (1982). Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden (1997), Anna Stothard's Isabel and Rocco (2003), and Helen Dunmore's A Spell of Winter (1995) were also important sources. These writers show the incest within their texts as consensual, or at least, as non-abusive. In most of these texts, the writers make it clear that they believe incest is wrong, adhere to the traditional ideas of taboo and secrecy, and punish, in various ways, those who break them. The exception to this is Angela Carter, whose portrayals of incest, especially those of the pubescent children in 'Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest', retain their innocence and seem to be free of 'sin'.

Although I had intended to finish the novel before I attempted the thesis, I discovered that the research I was doing on the latter had an ongoing effect on the novel, and widened its scope thematically. In the end, I wrote the novel and the thesis concurrently - an organic process with each piece growing naturally from the other. The effect of research on the creative piece definitely didn’t happen on a conscious level, but the theories I read on child abuse, narcissism, and incest nonetheless filtered through to my writing. This worked less obviously the other way around, but that was probably to be expected, given that I already knew the themes I wanted to explore and did not deviate from them much. However, I believe that the research I was doing at the time of writing the novel benefited it, in that the work 'felt' more informed. On the other hand, those parts that I did write without being influenced by research were later vindicated by my research, especially Janet Liebman Jacobs' Victimized Daughters, the main source used for researching child abuse, along with Bataille's Eroticism for the taboo of incest, and Sam Vance's website on narcissistic personality disorder. This evidence helped me to feel more secure about approaching the subject matter on a more instinctive level.

Did I successfully achieve my main aim - that of producing a creative piece that did not negatively judge the incestuous relationship between Lex and Jez? In some ways, yes, given that their relationship seems to me perfectly natural, something that was almost inevitable given their circumstances, and this was also borne out by my research. However, I am aware that their relationship as a whole is an unhealthy one, and that the characters of Lex and Jez are not necessarily sympathetic. In that, perhaps I have judged, but my opinion now is that complete non-judgement might be impossible on any writer's part.

Their unsympathetic portrayal seems to evolve more from their personality disorders, which have been shaped by their abusive past, than from their present relationship. In general, I feel that as the novel went on, the theme of incest probably became less important and central to it than the themes of sexual obsession, domination and submission, the cyclical nature of abuse.

This was not a bad thing, since as the novel became more thematically diversified, the boundaries of what the novel is 'about' blurred. Rather than reading the text in a passive way, a reader would necessarily have to engage in it actively to be able fully to identify with these themes and the character interactions. In this way, it becomes a 'writerly' text, as described by Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text: 'Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts… unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions…' This I believe describes Clutching Shadow, in that the subject matter does disturb the reader's 'cultural (and) psychological assumptions'; it presents a set of circumstances that are by 'normal' moral standards unpalatable and disturbing to read. I feel that I was challenged through the writing of this project, and this challenge has since proved beneficial for my writing as a whole.

In conclusion, working toward an MRes allowed me the licence to explore these controversial subjects within the academic framework of the thesis. Rightly or wrongly, I felt it validated the creative project, and it also helped me to better understand the themes of my own writing. Working by research proved extremely satisfying, teaching me how to source work more efficiently, how to work more independently and, of course, helped develop my own critical thinking in more depth.

Not first novel publishable material?

Copyright - Lesley McKenna 2008



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