Incest is one of civilized man’s oldest taboos, yet in contemporary America it is apparently far more widespread than believed. That is the conclusion of Henry Giarretto, 63, of San Jose, Calif., director and principal therapist at the child sexual abuse treatment program of the Juvenile Probation Department of Santa Clara County, which in the past five years has treated 600 cases of incest. The number of cases is surprising because Santa Clara County (pop. 1,197,000) is both prosperous (it boasts the highest median income of any California metropolitan area) and predominantly middle-class white (only 1.7 percent are black, 17.5 percent Mexican-American and 4 percent Oriental). A practitioner of humanistic psychology, Giarretto graduated from California State University, North-ridge and has a masters in psychology from San Jose State University. The father of seven children, aged 19 to 27 (including two stepdaughters and one stepson), Giarretto often counsels troubled families with the part-time assistance of his therapist wife, Anna, 45. Recently he discussed incest, its prevalence and causes with Clare Crawford of PEOPLE, who will also report on the subject on the NBC-TV news program Weekend on Saturday, May 7.
What is incest?
We define it as any sexual activity between a parent and a child, or between children in a family. The adult need not necessarily be the biological parent—it could be a stepfather, or any authoritative figure in the home.
How prevalent is incest in America?
There are no hard statistics, only estimates. My guess is hundreds of thousands of incidents. I believe that incest is epidemic in America.
What evidence do you have?
When I first looked into the literature on the subject, it was generally agreed that there was only one case in a million. In 1971 when I started this program, I got 30 cases. Since the population of Santa Clara County is a little over a million, that was a 30-fold increase. Last year we had about 270 cases, and this year we are running between 500 and 600. That’s an enormous increase, and I think we are just beginning to tap the actual prevalence.
Why are cases of incest hushed up?
The big problem is denial or a refusal to admit there is a problem. Out of self-survival, a mother will try to protect her family. Often a district attorney will decide not to prosecute because the father denies any guilt.
What is an incestuous family like?
We’re finding that all the myths about incest are truly without basis. For example, that it’s usually a black family, a lower-class family, or that the daughter is a Lolita, the mother subservient and the father a tyrant. These things can’t be proved from the families I’ve seen. Incestuous tension exists in every family.
What provokes incest?
A combination of circumstances. Usually it’s a man losing his job or going through a low-ebb period in his life. He and his wife become alienated. The father reaches out to his daughter, looking for closeness. She is open to him, loves him, thinks he’s great. The first overtures are not sexual.
What happens when the attraction becomes sexual?
The first reaction is one of self-disgust. Then it becomes like an insidious compulsion. Before he knows it, he’s making actual sexual overtures.
At what age do such incestuous relations begin?
The average age for children starts around 10 or 11, but we have had cases of incest with children as young as 4 or 5—and even with infants. Some of these involve grandfathers.
Do such men generally have criminal records?
No, they are very average, very respectable people. They have no alcoholism, no drug problems—some say they’ve never even gotten a traffic ticket. We’re treating some people in the $30,000 to $40,000 bracket.
What is the attitude of the fathers?
When a person breaks a taboo, it’s more than breaking the law to him—it’s a sin. He doesn’t want to be patted on the head and told he’s just doing his thing—as some psychiatrists have advised. He wants to be dealt with sternly but compassionately.
Why do they talk with you?
They are very willing to confess, if there is some hope the family will not be destroyed and they will not have to go to prison for a horrendous term. It’s one to 50 years in California.
At first, didn’t you find it difficult to be sympathetic to such men?
When I started, I read the police report of one particularly raunchy case in which sexual activity with a daughter started when she was 5 years old, oral copulation at 7, sodomy at 10 and full intercourse at 13.1 was overcome with rage. I wanted to strangle that man. All my humanistic notions just dissolved. But when I sat down with him, it wasn’t as tough as I thought, because he was honestly contrite. He wanted to unburden, he wanted to be helped.
What action do you insist such a father take?
He must face the daughter and accept full responsibility for whatever happened. We tolerate no excuses along these lines. We don’t care how provocative the youngster was. If the father succumbed to that, then he is delinquent in his parental responsibility. And he says this very clearly to the girl.
And what of the mother?
She, too, faces the girl and says that the youngster was a victim of a poor marriage, for which she and her husband are jointly responsible. If the girl has left home and wants to return—and my primary concern is what she wants—then I get the mother and daughter together and have them resolve the feelings of jealousy that the mother sometimes has toward the daughter.
What reaction does the girl have?
The youngster is relieved of guilt, and then the therapy starts. She goes through the pain and oppression she felt, the period when her father became jealous and wouldn’t allow her to meet her peers. Soon she doesn’t feel so awful about herself.
Is such frankness the best therapy?
If we don’t treat families in a humane way, the problem becomes even more serious when they are exposed to the criminal justice system. The youngsters see the police cars descending on the home, the father manacled and taken away. We’ve had fathers picked up at work who subsequently lost their jobs. Girls are taken to a shelter or detention center. They are forcibly removed from the family, and they interpret this as punishment.
What happens to such girls if the incest is not reported?
The first inclination-you hear it over and over again-is, “My father did this to me. He didn’t consider me a daughter. And, by God, I’m going to get back at him. I’m going to give it away.” And they go through a period of promiscuity with the boys at school. Another reaction is to take drugs to ease the pain. Some get married at 15 or 16, as a method of leaving home.
Are the effects of unreported incest on the daughter long-lasting?
Yes. One study of 200 prostitutes discovered that about 30 percent had been incestuously assaulted. And in two Odyssey House studies, around 40 percent of drug-addicted women had been victims of incest. In terms of women who are unable to achieve orgasm or are frigid, the figure can be as high as 80 percent.
What about boys in the family?
We assume that the dominant form of incest is sexual experimentation between young members of the family. The cases that come to our attention usually involve an older brother who’s sexually exploiting his younger sister. Psychologically, that isn’t quite as damaging as father and daughter; nonetheless it is exploitation.
What about mother-son incest?
We’ve had some lurid cases, but they are rare. It happens in single-parent families where the mother is divorced, the older boy takes over the duties of father, and then the sexual responsibilities as well. But a boy of 16 would really feel he was betraying his mother if he turned her in, whereas a young girl of 14, who can’t support a father’s sexual demands on her anymore, finally blurts out her story.
Is society in part to blame?
It’s the sexual climate of our society which helps create the problem. We teach our girls to be Lolitas and sexual provocateurs from the time they’re 2. They get it from television continually, how to flounce their hair, how to shake their butts. Instead of Shirley Temple, we now have Tatum O’Neal and Jodie Foster, who played the young prostitute in Taxi Driver.
Don’t you have to report cases of incest to the authorities?
Many families call us anonymously and say, “If we come in, will you have to report?” And I tell them, “Yes, the chances are we would.” It’s required under the new child abuse reporting law. But I also warn them that by covering up, not facing the situation, the family will suffer much more. And I really believe that. We have families that have rebuilt around the crisis. It can be a regenerative factor.