Everyone becoming absorbed into the character of a person so original and
compelling as Emily Dickinson tries to solve the mystery of her reclusion. Her
brother explained it as a “gradual happening.” Others mention epilepsy, disfiguring
lupus erythematosus, fear of blindness, a broken romance, a wall-eye (squint). By
and large these are potted notions that trivialize the poet and her singular poetry. I
took a similar risk, but now regret its reductionist approach, advancing my own
“magic bullet” solution to the still biographically compelling question, “What was
behind Emily Dickinson’s gradual withdrawal and eventual reclusion?”
My hypothesis was almost entirely intuitive: Something happened. This is
nearly the phrase used by Robert Craft in his 1987 New York Review of Books
critique of Polly Longsworth’s fine book, Austin and Mabel. Craft titled the review,
“Amorous in Amherst,” snickering at Austin and Mabel’s sexual romps, which began
near the close of Emily’s life; but surprisingly, in the same piece, he soberly discussed
Emily and her now two decades-long reclusion. “...[W]hatever it was, including an
experience that exceeds the known facts, something had happened to this [in 1852]
twenty-two- year-old girl who had been socially active only shortly before.” Why did
Craft link the adultery to Emily Dickinson’s reclusion? He obviously meant to
intimate that the “something” was carnal, and my intuition was incest. (Judith
Herman defines incest as “...any sexual relationship between a child and an adult, in a
position of paternal authority...a sexual relationship [with] any physical contact that
had to be kept a secret.”)
The thought was hardly original. The psychiatrist John Cody was the first to
raise the possibility, although he regarded it rather as a fantasy of incest, Emily
Dickinson’s fantasy – she who wrote to her brother in 1851 (L57) in the cadence of
the Song of Songs, “Prithee, my brother, Into my garden come.” (Verse 4:12: “The
garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.”)
We may think incest is a modern phenomenon of anomie and dysfunctional
families, but it is simply that we are more open to its discussion. Linda Gordon’s
research in nineteenth century Boston social case reports indicates a pervasive
problem. In Emily’s own neighborhood, in 1876, the Reverend Charles Dexter
Lothrop was excommunicated from the First Congregational Church of Amherst for
his behavior to his three daughters, “involving brutal horsewhippings...systematic
starving...and positive dishonesty and faithlessness in his family relations.” Austin
Dickinson sat on the committee judging Lothrop.
What I presented in my paper1 on the subject was the following circumstantial
1) Based on many studies of women who experienced incest, both from
nineteenth century records and from modern interviews, an “incest family profile”
suggested itself to Herman and others writing on the subject: the rigid, demanding and
patriarchal father (often religious and upstanding in the community), the passivedependent mother, the “enmeshed” family whose members are unable to leave yet are
isolated within their own household. The standards of child-care in nineteenth
century Puritan New England were congruent with this pattern. Edward Dickinson
owned a copy of a family primer, The Mother at Home; or The Principles of Maternal
Duty, which instructed the father to be master over utterly compliant mothers and
children. Although we risk caricature in describing the Dickinson family and its
members, I believe the weight of evidence places them within the profile, although
assuredly proves nothing.
2) Women survivors of incest, compared to a non-abused group, are severalfold more likely to experience depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias – years
after the event(s). The survivor is also more likely to act inappropriately in adult
sexual affairs, and to regard herself with, as Judith Herman writes, “an exaggerated
fear of her own destructive potential.” We have much material before us documenting
Dickinson’s sadness, anxiety, a panic attack, social phobia, and so I won’t go into
detail. The intense and perhaps inappropriate displays of intimacy that Emily
Dickinson displayed to men and women in her letters have been much debated, but
the pattern started early: Here is the adolescent writing with apparent chagrin to Abiah
Root, “You remarked that I had written you more affectionately than wont” (L 91),
which could explain, in part, the increasing disaffection of friends, and Dickinson’s
sense of isolation. More compelling is her own verdict about “destructive potential,”
found as early as 1850 in a letter to friend Jane Humphrey (L30): “I didn’t mean to
make you wicked – but I was – and shall be – and I was with you so much, that I
couldn’t help contaminate.” While this mea culpa surely relates to Dickinson’s refusal
to stand up for Christ, a similar note is struck in the 1852 note to Susan Gilbert (the
future Mrs. Austin Dickinson) (L77), “...in thinking of those I love, my reason is all
gone from me, and I do fear sometimes that I must make a hospital for the hopelessly
insane, and chain me up there such times, so I wont injure you.” Shortly after, in a
letter to Jane Humphrey (L86), Dickinson explains why she is reluctant to leave home
in terms of truly magical-thinking “destructive potential”: “...I look at my father and
Hirschhorn, N. "A Bandaged Secret: Emily Dickinson and Incest." Journal of
Psychohistory, 18, 1990.
mother and Vinnie, and all my friends, and I say no – no, cant leave them, what if
they die when I’m gone.”
3) Despite the hazard of circular reasoning if one interprets Dickinson’s poetry
and letters (more precisely, a few of her nearly 1,800 poems and over 1,000 existing
letters) to suggest incest or the fantasy of incest, psychiatrist John Cody did just that,
concluding in his psychoanalytic portrait After Great Pain. The Inner Life of Emily
Dickinson, “If...the poems do commemorate a real event, it’s hard to escape the
conclusion that the experience she found so odious and insupportable was an actual
sexual encounter.”
Even so reductionist a biographer as Cynthia Griffin Wolff (...”there is no
‘tragedy’ sufficient to account for the force of the verse, and her daily existence was
so simple that even the usual rages and passions of ordinary life seem to have been
largely excluded from it”), one who found the Austin-Mabel affair “entirely
irrelevant” except it got Dickinson’s poetry an editor, seemed compelled to detect
themes of sexual abuse in a number of exquisite poems: Vesuvius at Home (F1691):
“domestic brutality...the most ancient of crimes”; I felt a Funeral, in my Brain (“the
surroundings flood into consciousness with a force like that of sexual violation”; He
fumbles at your Soul (F477): “sexual molestation”; The Soul has Bandaged moments
(F360): “such a perverse mixture of orgiastic delight and fatal loss”; among others.
This is not to say that Cody, explicitly, and Wolff, reluctantly, are right; but they too
seem to conclude that something happened.
Then again, in Dickinson’s case, maybe nothing happened. While more
women experiencing domestic sexual abuse demonstrate certain family and personal
profiles than women unscathed, the majority of those with such profiles were never
abused. To explain with a bit of disease epidemiology: 90% of persons with lung
cancers have been smokers, but only 10% of smokers get lung cancer.
Neurobehavioral research suggests that fear of a fearful event can produce the
same brain and physiological responses as if actually encountering the event; as the
ever-insightful Dickinson wrote to her cousins, her fears “gave me a snarl in the brain
which don’t unravel yet.” (L281) The hypothesis of incest rests on thin grounds but
for one more piece of evidence, unnoticed previously.
Lady Georgiana Fullerton wrote three gothic romance novels in the midnineteenth century. Austin had read her “Grantley Manor” (draft letter to Susan in
1851: “You ask what I read...Bachelor’s Reveries– Dana’s Prose & Poems– The
Bible– ‘Grantley Manor’); he probably read “Ellen Middleton” (Emily to Austin, L90,
“I have read ‘Ellen Middleton”...I needn’t tell you I like it, nor need I tell you more,
for you know already”), as did both Gilbert sisters, Martha and Susan. Austin also
read Fullerton’s most popular novel, “Lady-Bird,” and he warned Susan bluntly
against reading it:
The first thing that comes to me after this beautiful evening & that bright
moon is the question with which you began your last letter – ‘Why dear Austin
have you always said don’t read “Lady Bird”’? Well Sue just for the same
reason that if a dish of fair very fair fruit were set before us – & I had eaten of
it & found a foul worm lying concealed beneath its tempting skin – I should
say it isnt good – don’t eat it Sue.... It seemed to me an unhealthy book – An
oppressive, disease laden atmosphere...I saw only sad sights and heard only
sad sounds...’twas like walking underneath a church-yard to me and meeting
souls there not yet freed from their earthly bodies – awake to their awful state
-- but with no means of relieving themselves & listening to their wailings and
groanings.... ‘Twas to me a story full of only wretchedness & misery – of
infinite wrong & inexpressible injury – of days of terror – nights of wo – of
brightest hopes blasted – of mortal lives wasted – of true hearts separated – of
human souls destroyed. ‘Twas a story of deeper suffering than many ever
know – that it’s best [not] any should know till they are obliged too....
Well! I’ve read all three books. “Grantley Manor” was innocuous. “Ellen
Middleton” was really the gloomy novel: a deathbed confession: a child accidentally
killed her cousin and kept it a shameful secret, she is blackmailed, many lives are
destroyed. “Lady-Bird” is actually uplifting, a story of salvation through good works,
forgiveness and reconciliation; the last lines, “...and since that time there have been
flowers in the gardens, and happiness within the walls of the old house of Lifford
Grange.” It is possible that Austin confused “Lady-Bird” with the shameful-secret
“Ellen Middleton,” but I was struck by a letter Mary Grey, a leading character in
“Lady-Bird,” writes to her step-brother Maurice Redmond with whom she grew up,
breaking off their engagement to be married:
You must give up the idea of marrying me. It has all been a mistake from the
beginning. We have loved each other dearly – how dearly God only knows,
and I love you, if possible, more than ever. But I feel now that it does not
answer for two persons who have been brought up together from infancy and
lived like brother and sister to fancy, when grown up, that they love each other
in a different way. I believe it is the mistake we made upon this point that has
caused your misery.
Was this Austin’s “worm?” Barring other evidence to be uncovered that is
where the matter must rest.2
Presented at the Emily Dickinson International Society Fourth Annual
Conference, Trondheim, Norway, August 3-5, 2001.
Since this talk was given Wendy Perriman published her book, “A Wounded Deer.
The Effects of Incest on the Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson” (Newcastle, UK:
Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006), that goes into the matter more deeply,
acknowledging my primary contribution.