August 2006

Mariya Strauss

nonfiction

Las Hijas de Juan: Daughters Betrayed by Josie Méndez-Negrete

I had a minor revelation while reading this book for the second time: personal memoirs resist critical inquiry, and that must be why there are so many of them out there. Las Hijas de Juan: Daughters Betrayed is no exception: I found myself confounded into silence by the magnitude of the author’s pain and by the confessional frankness in her tone as she writes about the traumas inflicted upon her and her sisters by their sexually predatory and abusive father. Josie Méndez-Negrete grimly and inexorably lays bare truth after sickening truth about the terrors of her girlhood. The family, Mexican-American migrant farm workers, endured the abuse in invisibility and silence until the father was finally caught and jailed. As I read, questions rose to the surface: how am I supposed to review a story so personal, so awash in grief and rage that I can’t read more than a chapter without feeling overwhelmed by horror? Am I qualified to review this book, being neither a survivor of incest nor a trained mental health professional?

The literature Duke University Press sent along with the book describes it as “both a feminist memoir and a hopeful meditation on healing,” and in some ways this is true. In her unadorned, direct testimonial style, Méndez-Negrete follows in the tradition of other Chicana and Latin American women writers who have published memoirs of their personal and family traumas, including Rigoberta Menchú, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Aurora Levins-Morales. Several members of this constellation of Latina writers are mentioned as personal friends and advisors in the epilogue to Daughters Betrayed, and in choosing to emulate their format, the author sinks her roots deeply in those layers of feminist soil. For a while in my early twenties, I sought out these memoirs as a way of accessing oppressions I had never actually experienced; I tried to understand patriarchy from the perspective of women who had suffered its worst tortures and lived to tell the tale. It can be satisfying or cathartic to read such clearly worded and undeniable indictments of male behavior, to feel the sharp power of Méndez-Negrete’s descriptions of abuse: “it felt as if his touching never stopped... I thought he would kill us all.”

I found it a little tougher to locate evidence of the “hopeful meditation on healing” part. Méndez-Negrete’s sentences are too jagged, for one thing -- I don’t know whether it was the urgency of her need to get the words out or a conscious stylistic choice or both, but she consistently drops the “I” when speaking about her actions and feelings. When the events she’s describing get intensely bad, the passages read like this one: “Gave me a stomachache. Made me want to throw up. Didn’t know just what to do. Tossed and turned.” The jarring dissociation of emotions from a human subject was effective in making me feel both helplessly complicit in the father’s crimes and... just helpless. Méndez-Negrete’s bad memories infected me like nightmares and sent me spiraling into negative emotions too often for me to want to keep reading. There is a nice section at the end of the book where the author writes about her healing process, finding compassion to forgive her mother and herself for not doing enough to stop the abuse. In the epilogue, written some time after the rest of the book was finished, she also frames her own story as a tool for women’s empowerment, saying that she “see[s] the book as a venue by which those individuals who have been victimized by incest may give voice to their experiences.” There it is. Though the Duke University Press folks didn’t say so in their press kit, survivors of incest are really this book’s intended audience.

Relieved that the author had a purpose other than to burden me with her grief, I found myself able to give the book a thorough second reading. Her direct storytelling voice makes it clear that the author possesses great courage and resilience; she places both her father and herself under the same magnifying glass, exposing the difference between her own normal human flaws and his monstrous sadism. Telling this story must have taken awesome strength. I found myself looking frequently at the author’s photo -- which isn’t on the book, but came with the press materials. Méndez-Negrete looks directly at the camera, with a quiet dignity in her shoulders and face. I can imagine that survivors of abuse might find her calmness encouraging: it suggests healing is possible even in the worst cases. I believe that Méndez-Negrete has made a positive contribution to the feminist literature on trauma and incest. While I feel it is certainly not appropriate for children or for families currently in crisis, adult survivors who are ready to face a detailed account of incest may wish to include Daughters Betrayed in their reading lists.

For everyone else, however, there are many other memoirs of trauma with more creative and fascinating uses of language and meaning. The overlooked but fabulous Remedios by Aurora Levins-Morales is a great example, as are Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. Without a better-crafted structure and/or some heavy revisions to make it more accessible, this book won’t really serve to help educate the general public about abuse, trauma, feminism, or healing. Luckily, the author tells us that isn’t its aim anyway.

Las Hijas de Juan: Daughters Betrayed by Josie Méndez-Negrete
Duke University Press
ISBN: 0822338963
198 pages