February 14, 2018
When “L’Inceste” was published in France, it prompted widespread alarm among critics. Many derided Angot as a provocateur who mined personal tragedy for profit. In a review for L’Express, titled “This Girl Is Dangerous,” the writer Christine Ferniot excoriated Angot for her “panting exhibitionism.” After attending an Angot reading in 2000, a critic for Le Parisien remarked that Angot represented a “kind of obscenity that everyone seems to feast on.” Michel Braudeau, then the editor of La Nouvelle Revue Française, referred to Angot’s writing on incest as “a scandalous theme perfect for getting column inches in the weeklies.”The book’s arrival in the U.S., nearly twenty years later, has been a quieter affair. But the timing is apt—not only because of the swarming headlines but because it follows the release of “The Incest Diary,” a memoir published last summer by an anonymous American author. “The Incest Diary” is a raw, relentless text, filled with unflinching descriptions of the author’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father, which began when she was three years old. The book alternates between scenes from childhood and adulthood, all of which cohere around a searing confession: because her father conditioned her to endure his abuse, the author came to crave it, to solicit it without his coercion, and to reënact it with subsequent partners. In her head, she holds two thoughts about him. She writes, “I want him to think that I’m sexy. And I want to savagely mutilate his body and feed his corpse to the dogs.”
Despite these differences, reviews of the two books, written decades and continents apart, have much in common. Again and again, critics pick apart the authors’ methods and motives rather than engage with the thornier issues of taboo and transgression. The author of “The Incest Diary” took pains to preserve her anonymity, and was derided as a likely fraud. (David Aaronovitch, in the Times of London, writes that “a very well-respected psychotherapist, when I told him in detail what was in the book, was sceptical.”) Angot defended with equal vehemence her right to expose people, and was pilloried as a shameless exhibitionist. Both women have been criticized for profiting from their stories. In the Telegraph, Allison Pearson charges that “The Incest Diary” was written to make headlines and sell “a shedload of copies,” as if the author “sat down to write the publishing sensation of The Summer of ’17.” In Newsweek, Lisa Schwarzbaum described the book as a work of “brutal sensationalism, discreetly packaged in a quietly designed product (almost the brown paper bag that men used to wrap around porn).”
Reviewers of “L’Inceste” avoided calling it porn, but, as with “The Incest Diary,” it provoked severe discomfort: Is there any part of this that we enjoy reading? Just as Angot and the author of “The Incest Diary” struggle with the question of whether they were complicit in their own abuse, readers of their books may grapple with the same question. Are we voyeurs or witnesses? Do we judge the women’s behavior, and, if so, according to what ethical standard?