Haaken’s Review of Douglas’s Contesting Childhood

Janice Haaken’s review of Kate Douglas’s Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma, and Memory indicates that Douglas has interrogated the genre expectations of the childhood autobiography:

  • “Douglas gathers up a rich web of autobiographical writing on childhood trauma to tell a larger cultural tale of the search for an authentic past” (853).
  • “Douglas describes the demand on the author to evidence forgiveness toward the cruelty of parents….As she wryly comments, ”forgiveness’ is a highly valued commodity in autobiography” (854).
  • “Douglas rightfully points out the difficulties in challenging texts that adopt a mantle of moral authority through the voice of the traumatized child” (855).
  • “The book makes visible many of the seductions of autobiographies of childhood, showing us how they have their way with us as readers and the pretenses they often conceal” (855).

Based on Haaken’s critique, it’s clear that Douglas’s book is implicitly addressing the issues of Standpoint as they relate to children.  The notion of “epistemic advantage” is inherent in the narrative of the abused child, and Douglas appears to be critiquing the ethics of applying such authorial positionaliity to reveal abuse:

Douglas takes up a more pervasive ethical issue at the heart of this sub-genre of autobiography.  She poses the question of when exposing the private failings of parents and other family membmers may be justified ethically.  The question of who has the right to confess, to break silence over what goes on ‘behind closed doors,’ is never satisfactorily explored in the book, even as critical tools are introduced to suggest that no one is fully innocent.  (855)

This brings up the issue of whether or not it’s ethical for a parent to “wire” a child in school, a few cases of which I’ve read in the media.  It also brings up the question of whether or not it’s ethical or even legal to record the goings-on in the home during a divorce or other familial dispute.

The recent controversy surrounding the Planned Parenthood “expose” videos is indicative of the dangers of selective editing as a means to rhetorically shape public perspectives on an event.    A follow-up considers then the ethics of witnessing.  Is it ethical to “witness” abuse, if such witnessing may damage familial relationships, particularly relationships between parents and children?

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