A Wounded Deer: The Effects of Incest on the Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson

A Wounded Deer Book Cover

(Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006)
ISBN 1-84718-045-0
Price: $79.99

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From the author:

The biggest challenge to Dickinson scholarship has always been to discover which specific life experiences conspired to make Emily Dickinson both the reclusive woman she was, and the dynamic poet she became. This book concludes that Emily Dickinson’s enigmatic poetry originated from her personal exposure to incest, and examines how she used her craft to make the transition from victim to survivor at a time when the medical profession failed to acknowledge any damage related to this event. A Wounded Deer is the first comprehensive literary study of this issue.

Chapter 1 investigates research into family background, evidence from letters and poems, and testimony provided by people who knew Dickinson, and suggests that the poet displays at least 33 of 37 “Incest Survivors’ Aftereffects” from E. Sue Blume’s checklist, a diagnostic tool used internationally by many incest therapists; when a client exhibits over 25 of these behavior patterns incest is strongly suspected. Chapter 2 is an investigation of the Dickinson family dynamics -- it determines that the incest perpetrator was probably her father, Edward Dickinson. Chapter 3 deals with the first stage of recovery, outlined by trauma expert Judith Herman as being the stabilization process. Chapter 4 is the second recovery stage, the integration of memories. And Chapter 5 is the final stage to restored health, the development of a new self that is able to rejoin society. Emily Dickinson completed stage 1 and 2, but was unable to complete stage 3 because she could not reconnect with the outside world.

This book contributes a new understanding of the “omitted center” (Jay Leyda, 1960) at the heart of Dickinson’s work because it provides an access key, allowing previously unfathomable poems to be understood as coded complaints about incest, child abuse, and rape. Writing was Dickinson’s way of identifying the nature of her trauma, coming to terms with its impact, breaking the silence to inspire future women writers, and reconstructing a new persona, albeit from the sanctuary of her self-imposed isolation.

The Excursus examines what the poet might have discovered about sexual abuse from the literature she read, and how she responded to this information in her own work. This section discusses The Bible, Shakespeare, Byron, Hawthorne, (Charlotte) Bronte, (George) Eliot, and Barrett Browning.

From the Readers:

“How many multitudes of women have been terrorized into silence, withholding the truth of their damning accusations rather than face the fear, condemnation and shame of incest? In A Wounded Deer, Wendy Perriman bears witness to the mystery and the transformative miracle of truth simultaneously hidden and revealed in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Other women may engrave their torment deep in the souls of their children. Emily allows her soul to reach over time and space to tell others tortured by life’s tragedies that they are not alone and in doing so the poet triumphs.”

Sandra L. Bloom, M.D.
Author of Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies
(New York and London: Routledge, 1997)

“. . . . A Wounded Deer is well-worth reading: its argument is clear, cogent, and at times riveting. I recommend her book for the general reader who is curious about the 19th century patriarchal world and its treatment and abuse of young girls and women. But I especially recommend it for those interested in Dickinson scholarship. Although we will never fully know the truth of the poet’s life, this study offers readers a very plausible suggestion of what may be at the core of Dickinson’s ‘omitted center’. According to Perriman, Dickinson’s ‘potential incest history alters the way her poems are read’ and provides ‘one of the missing themes at the heart of her writing’.”

Maryanne Garbowsky, Ph. D.
Author of The House Without the Door: A Study of Emily Dickinson and the Illness of Agoraphobia
(New Jersey, London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1989)

“Using the latest developments in sexual trauma history, Perriman carefully builds a detailed and thoroughly convincing case for Dickinson as an incest survivor, suggesting that her father, the righteous and respected Edward Dickinson, was the culprit, and providing startling evidence that father-daughter incest was not an unusual situation in the nineteenth-century . . . . As well as being a superb example of the most careful and detailed scholarship, A Wounded Deer is fascinating, clearly written, difficult to put down, and a must for Dickinson scholars, psychologists, and anyone interested in psychological interpretations of literature.”

Marilyn Berg Callander, Ph. D.
Past President of the Fulbright Association and author.

“. . . . A Wounded Deer” will stimulate discussion among those interested in Emily Dickinson, women’s literature, Victorian literature, trauma studies, and survivors for years to come. And that is as it should be. Like the poetry of its subject, this compelling thesis is a fascinating and revealing read.”

E. Sue Blume, LCSW, Diplomate in Clinical Social Work
Author of Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women (New York: Ballantine, 1990)