What is incest?
Woody Allen is not Soon-Yi's biological father; he is not married to her adoptive mother Mia Farrow; and he did not live in their home. Moreover, Soon- Yi is a consenting adult. But if the Woody-Soon-Yi affair is not legally out of bounds, it is hardly innocent. At the very least, a man who sleeps with his ex-lover's daughter appears predatory and manipulative.
But the relationship shades into indecency with the claim by Soon-Yi's siblings that Allen has been a father figure to the entire Farrow brood ever since Soon-Yi was a preteen. Isn't that bringing sex a little too close to home, close , enough to raise the issue of incest?
Defining the ancient taboo becomes hard in an era of recombinant families created by divorce, remarriage and adoption. The traditional stricture -- no carnal relations between parent and child or brother and sister -- still holds, but how does it apply to today's blended and extended families, where blood ties are often thin or absent?
Historically the taboo has had a scientific rationale: that inbreeding drains the gene pool, greatly increasing the chances of mental and physical defects in offspring. But modern geneticists have found that such dangers are overstated; it would take generations of inbreeding for such problems to surface regularly. A more important reason for the taboo is cultural: incest has been banned to preserve family harmony by keeping disruptive rivalries and jealousies at bay. It has also helped to strengthen kinship clans; by forcing members to marry outside the group, the clan expands its wealth and allies.
Today the most significant damage from incest is psychological. The heart of a family, say experts, is not the bloodline but the emotional connection. "Proper human growth involves gradually separating emotionally from your family so that you can go off and start one of your own," stresses child therapist Carole West of Beverly Hills, California. "Incest disrupts that process."
The surge in nontraditional families increases the risk of disruption. "There are more incidents of incest reported in stepfamilies than in biological families," observes Lynn Reynolds of the Institute Against Social Violence, in Briarcliff Manor, New York. Adopted children may be particularly vulnerable; no matter how well they are treated by their adoptive families, they frequently struggle with feelings of abandonment by their biological parents.
"Anyone who comes into a marriage with a teenage child needs to exercise extra caution about incest," warns psychiatrist Domeena Renshaw of Loyola School of Medicine, in Chicago. "That child is beginning to blossom, and will sometimes compete with the natural parent." Freudian theory holds that the earliest erotic impulses are incestuous; young boys unconsciously rival their father for their mother's affection, while daughters covet their father, a normal process in development known, in boys and girls respectively, as the Oedipus and Electra complexes. One therapist wonders whether Soon-Yi may never have resolved such early longings and might now be replacing her mother as the father's lover.
The courts may not call it incest or child abuse, but the relationship is surely an abuse of power. "Does anyone really see Soon-Yi as a consenting equal?" asks West. "Would she feel free to say no to the great Woody Allen? Is she intellectually mature enough?" One reason the taboo of incest has endured so strongly is the understanding most people have that the complex emotional bonds and power relationships that exist within a family -- even an extended one -- should never be abused.
With reporting by Andrea Sachs/New York and James Willwerth/Los Angeles
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