Rachel’s Research Ch. 01: Debbie , Phil
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Journalism isn’t an easy life, especially for a woman.
Okay, everyone moans about their jobs and it has provided me with an income for over two decades — albeit often a sporadic income — but no-one has ever become rich while working at the sharp end of the pencil.
Because of this, most professionals have more than one string to their bow. Some write books, some write copy for advertisers, some write articles for the endless number of magazines — paper and online – under pseudonyms. Others still have entirely different part time careers to help through the dry times.
In my case, I have had my husband Dan’s large and reliable income as a fall-back, so when commissions were few, I have been able to explore other, less financially rewarding and in some cases, less legitimate avenues of my profession, as well as most recently going back to the world of academia.
Not all of these avenues were known to my husband. He did not know that I wrote the occasional article and case study for websites designed to provide online support to couples in shall we say, unconventional relationships. He did not know that, using skills obtained in my first degree then honed by real life, I had become something of a specialist in the field of consanguineous relationships — all under carefully protected pseudonyms of course.
In particular, he did not know about my secret side-line in writing erotic stories for several online publishers. These had been based on a small number of themes, one of which was the perennially popular and, to those not involved personally, permanently perplexing problem of love and sex between family members.
Incest, as it is so often and so casually described.
Exactly how this originated I will, for the moment at least, keep to myself. Suffice to say, it was enough to give me a considerable empathy with the subject but even so, I was looking forward with some trepidation to the demands a full-on PhD programme would put on me, my family and my marriage.
Dan of course had been supportive right from the beginning when I had first broached the idea of going back to University two years ago to study for a Masters’ Degree. I wasn’t sure how he would feel about me remaining a non-earner for another three years at least, so I had initially dressed it up as a change to the way I worked.
“You want to go freelance?” he asked, surprised but to my relief, not annoyed. “I thought you had to go back full-time as soon as you’d finished your Masters. I thought your career depended on it, Rache.”
“They’re short of budget,” I lied. “So it suits them too. They offered part-time but I wanted the freedom, you know?”
Dan sighed. It was by no means the first time his wife of twenty-five years had made a sudden and unexpected change of course in her life. As before, the man that I loved but didn’t deserve, tried to understand what I was saying and to find a way of helping make it happen.
“It’s not as if we need the money,” he conceded thoughtfully. “But I thought you wanted your career to…”
“I’ve had second thoughts,” I interrupted. “I’ve enjoyed this master’s degree so much, I’ve got a real taste for academic study now.”
“How long would a Doctorate take?” he asked.
“Three, maybe four years.”
“And you’re sure you can stick it out that long?”
“I’ve never been surer about anything.”
Ditching my career and returning to University after nearly two successful decades in a high-pressure job in journalism had been hard work, but the love of psychology my bachelor’s degree had engendered had returned almost immediately.
I was where I belonged, if not in life, at least as far as my career was concerned.
And who knows how my course of study might help the other, more difficult, more secret aspects of my life?
Everybody has secrets, but some are much darker than others. Most people lock that kind of secret away and try to get on with life; others have secrets so dark or so significant that they keep rising to the surface and will not let go.
Like most people, I have something in both of these categories.
Some of my secrets are small; a concealed inability to resist chocolate raisins; a hidden love of cheap romantic novels; a taste for exotic, sexy lingerie. Nothing serious or illegal, but given my feminist history, the sort of thing my colleagues would laugh at.
Other secrets are larger; a side-line in reading and writing erotic stories; an occasional evening’s anonymous cyber-sex with a stranger when my husband is away. Nothing to be too ashamed of but which might hurt my marriage or damage my career as a serious political journalist if they ever came out.
One or two of my secrets are big; too big to be openly discussed; things to be suppressed as hard as possible for as long as possible.
I had thought my biggest secret was one of these; something I could make myself forget and get on with my life. For years this had been the case, but as I grew older and the distractions of my grown-up family had reduced, it had kept coming bursa escort back to haunt me.
Memories and emotions from deep in my past had been rising to the surface more and more frequently and more and more intensely until, at the age of fifty-three, I realised I could dismiss them no longer and had to look them in the face.
Returning to University to pursue my academic studies had been intended to help with this but had backfired. Far from making my past easier to deal with, my recently acquired masters’ degree in Psychology had only heightened my interest.
Instead of helping me dismiss my past, it had awakened a deep desire to explore the whole subject in much more depth. The precious doctorate I had come to desire was the next step in that process.
I knew that the subject of my research would bring me face to face with episodes and incidents in my life that would be painful.
It would bring me into contact with people who had been faced with similar decisions to those I had been forced to take, but who had chosen different paths.
It would make me question the whole of the last forty years of my life. But it had to be done, my sanity depended on it and there would never be a better time than now.
“But why incest, for God’s sake?” Dan asked, genuinely puzzled. “Isn’t it just child abuse? Won’t you get really upset by it all? It’s happened before, remember?”
I had been expecting this. My husband wasn’t a man to simply accept things unchallenged and this was a big thing for anyone to accept. It was true that in the past, my journalistic investigations had taken me into worlds and places that had distressed me badly, but this was different.
I had already been to these places. I already knew what awaited me.
The real reasons for my choosing this topic for my Doctorate were long, complicated and dated all the way back to my childhood, but these could not be discussed. Instead I told my husband the same half-truths I had told my supervisor.
“There’s plenty of work going on about the abuse element already,” I lied again. “And it’s not just children. Okay, when you think of incest, child abuse is the first thing that comes to mind; Josef Fritzl and men like him. That certainly is abuse and should be a crime in anyone’s book. But that’s not what I’m proposing to study.”
“Go on,” he said, unconvinced.
“Consensual adult incest is a real and growing thing,” I explained. “There’s more to it than just the issue of abuse and protection. There are real medical and social implications involved, hence the funding.”
The funding was trivial, but it lent legitimacy to what might otherwise be thought a doubtful direction of research, so I stressed it strongly and frequently.
“The effect of complex family structures and popular culture on behavioural boundaries and sexual relationships,” he read from the title page. “It sounds very serious, but we’ve talked about it often enough. I think I understand where you’re coming from.”
Dan had me bang-to-rights on this, but I wasn’t going to cave in and let him know. Despite over twenty-five years of marriage, he did not know all my secrets and most certainly did not know the Big Secret. I began to explain for the umpteenth time the basis of the research that was going to dominate my next three years and I hoped, help me finally to come to terms with my past.
“You know some minority cultures have a long history of arranged marriages with their cousins?” I asked after a long monologue about the research process I would follow.
“Of course. It’s perfectly legal here too. We’ve been through this,” Dan replied patiently.
“That’s right; it’s not illegal here. If it was, most Royal Families would have died out generations ago. But did you know that even in in this country, those minority cultures have a hugely disproportionate number of birth defects?”
“I didn’t know, but it doesn’t surprise me,” he said, listening intently.
“It’s true. Some South Asian groups in particular have many times the birth defects of the rest of the population.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“Well there’s some evidence — small but statistically significant — that these defects are rising in other ethnic groups too. The amount of inter-marriage and cultural transfer between that Asian group and the general population is miniscule, so it must be down either to genetic damage or…”
“Or a change in behaviour in the mainstream population.”
“You mean an increase in marrying cousins?” he asked, not quite understanding.
“Maybe,” I replied tentatively. “The statistics are inconclusive on that so far. It’s a fundamental part of the research I would have to work on. But there is anecdotal evidence that something else is going on too.”
“What sort of thing?”
“Well,” I took a moment to choose my words carefully. “There is qualitative and some quantitative evidence that family dynamics are changing. With so much relationship breakdown, remarriage, co-habitation and single parent households, family diagrams now bursa escort bayan look more like webs or matrices than like trees. There is a credible hypothesis that norms of behaviour are changing as a result.”
He looked puzzled. I went on.
“The boundaries between and within families are being confused and are breaking down. Genetic parents are no longer bringing up their own children; there are far more stepsiblings and half-siblings than ever before, often raised apart. Genetically related children are growing up in different places and in different cultures.”
“Okay, I get it so far.”
I was getting into my stride now; much in the way I had presented my research idea to the University.
“We know from studies in Israel that completely unrelated children brought up communally in kibbutzim can acquire the Westermarck effect — you know, the instinctive aversion to having sexual relationships with family members – just as if they were genetic siblings.”
“You mean if you’re brought up as if you were brother and sister, you feel and behave as if you were brother and sister even if you have different parents?”
If I was trying to baffle my husband with jargon, I was being unsuccessful and should have known better than to try.
“Exactly. And the opposite could be true too; with so many siblings no longer growing up together and parents not being in traditional roles of responsibility, the Westermarck effect could be breaking down. In that case, there would be less social or instinctive aversion to offset the strong sexual attraction that family members naturally feel towards each other.”
“Naturally? Why? Surely it isn’t natural to fancy your sister — or your Mum,” he challenged.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” I replied earnestly. “Think about it. How many couples do we know where they either look like each other or like their parents?”
He thought for a moment.
“Okay, maybe but…”
“There’s no but! Each of us is programmed to make little copies of ourselves, right? Otherwise the human race would have stopped millions of years ago.”
“I suppose so.”
“So, evolution has led us to be attracted both to the best quality DNA available, and to potential mates who are most likely to reproduce. Are you with me?”
“Of course; I went to University too!” he grunted.
“Who is the most obviously fertile person you know? If you’re a boy, it’s your mother. She gave birth to you after all. If you’re a girl, it’s your father for the same reason; undeniable fertility.”
“You’re not saying every child is sexually attracted to its parents? That we all have Oedipus and Electra complexes?”
“No!” I insisted. “I’m saying that we’re likely to be attracted to people who look like our parents because to us, that’s what fertile looks like. If you’re a boy, you’re likely to be sexually attracted to girls who subconsciously remind you of your mother. Vice versa for girls. And who is most likely to remind a boy of his mother?”
“You’ve got it. It’s only the Westermarck effect that comes from growing up in close proximity that counteracts this fundamental sexual attraction. That and legal and cultural issues of course.”
“So, your hypothesis is that families are becoming less close, so the Westermarck effect is getting weaker,” Dan asked. “That this weakening is leading to stronger sexual attraction between family members which in turn is leading to sexual behaviour between family members?”
“That’s right,” I smiled.
“With consequent increases in birth defects?”
“And that this is being encouraged by reducing social constraints too?”
“I’m thinking of calling it the ‘Game of Thrones’ effect!”
“What?” he exclaimed, surprised.
“I thought that would grab your attention.”
“It certainly did that! Why Game of Thrones?”
“It’s one of the biggest things in the media now isn’t it? Crossing generations and getting into the culture?”
“That’s an understatement.”
“And what’s one of its biggest ongoing themes? Incest! It’s appearing in lots of other media too.”
“You can’t blame a Game of Thrones storyline for an increase in birth defects!”
“I’m not trying to! It’s as much a symptom as a cause. What I am saying is that it’s an example of societal rules changing quickly. Sixty years ago a divorced woman was an outcast. Now more than half of all marriages end in divorce. It’s the same with unmarried mothers. We used to call their children ‘bastards’ but that’s so far in the past we don’t even know what the word used to mean anymore.
“We don’t think twice about same-sex couples either,” I went on. “Though that used to be illegal as recently as our lifetime. Even transsexuals are becoming normalised. It’s not surprising that boundaries of acceptability are being pushed in other directions too.”
I paused for breath. It had been an impassioned speech, even for me and I had to stop before I said too much, even for my wonderful, ever-patient husband to take in.
“I escort bursa suppose so,” he said, still unsure. “But I still don’t see what your personal interest is.”
This line of questioning was getting too close for comfort so I ignored it and delivered what I hoped would be my killer blow.
“As I said, it’s only a hypothesis, but it’s strong enough to have attracted funding for a PhD.”
He frowned, unconvinced.
“Of course! Think about it. The implications for the Health Service alone are potentially huge. Just because something becomes socially acceptable, doesn’t change the genetics. There could be a big increase in birth defects across the whole of the country.”
“I suppose so.”
“And the impact on social cohesion could be profound. Traditional family structures are already collapsing, with consequent demands on welfare and social care budgets. If the hypothesis is right, it’s something that needs to be prepared for now.”
He nodded. “I get it!”
“And what about the Law? How many prosecutions for incest could the system cope with? And if both parties are consenting adults and no babies are conceived, why should it be a crime at all? It’s just the ‘yuk factor’ really. But that’s no way to make laws; gay marriage has proved that. Besides, our justice system is already overwhelmed.”
“Okay, okay! I’m convinced!” he laughed out loud. “Enough of the psychology already!”
I laughed too and put the kettle on again.
“So, you’re okay about me being a student for another few years?” I asked, desiring rather than needing my husband’s acceptance; not entirely confident it would be forthcoming.
“It’s fantastic, Rache,” Dan smiled enthusiastically. “We can afford it; you do what you need to do. For whatever reason, you’re really passionate about this slightly weird subject and we already know you’ve got the stamina. Go for it, girl!”
I leaned against the kitchen counter and smiled at the man in front of me; the man I had married so many years ago despite the complications of my past. The man I had grown to love more than any other — almost any other I corrected myself.
It would be a challenging few years, but it had to be done; if not for the University, for myself and my sanity.
However difficult it would be, soon Rachel’s Research would really, actually begin.
All that was over a year ago, I mused as I sat back on my chair and sighed, sipping my hot coffee deliberately slowly, savouring each mouthful. A lot had happened since.
Most projects in life are much harder in reality than they seem in the planning and my research had been no exception and in the past twelve months, hard work had taken its toll. Although much of my bright eyed and bushy tailed excitement still remained, it had acquired a hard-nosed determination to see things through despite the agonies of statistical interpretation, data capture and analysis that had plagued the first phase.
If I had known the amount of maths I would need to use, either by myself or with the goodwill and co-operation of others in the University, I might have been less keen to put my research project into effect. But I had stuck it out and now, a painful year into the programme, the bulk of statistics were finally behind me.
What those statistics revealed needed further analysis but at first reading, they did tend to support the hypothesis on which my PhD was based; certain types of birth defects were indeed increasing. Much of the increase remained in areas dominated by the particular communities expected, but there were statistically significant increases among the general population too.
What’s more, there were marked clusters both in some inner cities and in more remote areas.
There seemed little correlation between levels of poverty or education and birth defects; if anything, the clusters seemed to be in more affluent areas where family bonds were stronger. There was a need for more in-depth research here too but for the moment I was finally able to do what was most important to me; talk to real people about their real lives.
From these interviews, the plan was to assemble a portfolio of case studies, as I had described the process in my study plan, and which was fundamental both to my success academically and for my own sanity.
At first it had surprised me just how easy it had been to find examples of real consanguineous relationships. My journalistic contributions to carefully chosen, supportive websites had been my first and best source of genuine case studies, but a number of approaches had come following the publication of a series of incest-based stories on two erotic websites under my usual author’s pseudonym.
Okay, there had been plenty of fantasists, perverts and downright weirdos too, but I was used to this and, once I had weeded out the creeps and timewasters, I had been left with a hardcore of genuine people with genuine histories.
Some wanted to correspond by email, others by instant messaging, a very few via Skype. One or two insisted on meeting face-to-face before disclosing anything personal. With my official University identity card, I was able to reassure the majority of my good faith and complete confidentiality — promises I had stuck to like glue.
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