The Incest Narrative: Taboo and Tabloid Terror in New South Wales

Dec 23, 2013 - by Binoy Kampmark - 0 Comments

Dec. 23, 2013

Colt family residence (photo

The tabloid feverishness which has greeted the finding of an incestuous, intergenerational family in rural New South Wales in Australia presents the incest taboo in full view.

by Binoy Kampmark

“The rationale for the incest taboo has never been satisfactorily explained despite a host of theoretical attempts to do so.” – Alan Dundes, The Flood Myth

It is sometimes forgotten, let alone known, that one of the most familiar romances of the medieval world centred on a coupling of incest.  The romance of Apollonius of Tyre begins with king and daughter.  The daughter does not leave home under the relentless sexual advances of her monarch father, who rapes her. “Spurred on by the frenzy of his lust, he took his daughter’s virginity by force, in spite of her lengthy resistance,” wrote Marina Warner in her article “The Virtue of Incest,” published in the London Review of Books (Oct. 7, 1993.)

A complicit nurse encourages the traumatized girl to avoid suicide.  Stay the course. Father knows better.  A task is then set by the king: He will give his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can answer a riddle. Mistakes will result in death.  The suitor Apollonius has no such desire to either get the riddle wrong or be killed, and answers correctly: “Nor did you lie when you said, ‘I eat my mother’s flesh’: look at your daughter.”

Indeed, the insistent repudiation of incest as an aberration, its criminalization as an abomination, can be taken as proof of its repeated occurrence through history.  After all, the very idea of a creation myth – where humankind came from – is bound to find itself in some incest bind, a lingering question as to how a species is initially perpetuated. As Sally Falk Moore claimed in her contribution to the American Anthropologist in 1964, “Any myth about the creation of man which postulates a single first family is bound to give rise to some incestuous riddles.  Who married the children of the first couple?” 

Other anthropological studies go so far as to claim that incest is a central motif in all mythologies, which leads to the powerful, cleansing idea of the flood.  Catastrophe removes and resolves the abnormality. “The function of Flood stories,” suggests the social anthropologist Edmund Leach in a chapter “Anthropological Approaches to the Study of the Bible during the Twentieth Century” (1983) “is to destroy this first Creation and its ambiguities and to start again.”

The tabloid feverishness which has greeted the finding of an incestuous, intergenerational family in rural New South Wales in Australia presents the incest taboo in full view.  Where, goes the rather noisy subtext, is the moral retribution, other than zealous workers of the protection industry?  Headlines have screamed about the uncovering of a genetic nightmare, a sex-ridden outfit of inbreeds and criminals.

The hysteria was delayed – child protection authorities and the NSW Children’s Court only revealed this month what had been discovered last year. The raid by an assortment of four-wheel drives, a police bus and an ambulance that took place in June 2012 saw 12 children removed from the extended family. The order of removal was affirmed by the Children’s Court.  “Labelled the worst instance of incest in the nation’s history, the case was exposed after locals spotted malnourished children in a valley who were not attending school” (The Telegraph, Dec. 12).  Forty adults and children were involved, living in squalor. Of the 12 children, 11 came from related parents.

The children belonged to five different mothers, including three sisters aged 47, 46 and 33, who had slept with their brother. Reports highlighted the physical nature of the children, many born with “physical deformities caused by having parents with identical gene patterns”.  According to the Sydney Morning Herald (Dec. 7), the children also had inadequate dental care, sight issues and cognitive impairment.

While generally sober in its coverage, the Sydney Morning Herald could not resist speculating about the moral credentials of the Colt family, the name given to them by the authorities.  “There is no suggestion,” writes Anna Davies, “they were part of a religious cult.  They seemed motivated by a desire to keep below the radar of the law” (Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 9).  Then Davies switches into moral gear, posing the most moral of questions – how did the children and the mothers before them “fall through the child protection net in a civilized country such as Australia”?

British tabloid enthusiasm proved particularly feverish.  “For the disturbing events that had taken place among the gum trees are now making their mark as among the planet’s worst-known cases of incest and inbreeding” (Daily Mail, Dec. 14).  Family trees were published and devoured with relish. Rural Australia was offering an incest treat for the morally outraged.

Colt family tree (infographic from

A few themes emerge from the coverage of the New South Wales incest case.  The Daily Mail, for one, decided to zoom in on biological defects, suggesting that moral abnormality had resulted in physical punishment.  “Sadly, a number of those children have come into the world with birth defects – a boy with misaligned eyes, another with a walking impairment, a child with hearing and sight problems, another with stunted speech.  One girl did not know how to bathe or use toilet paper.”

The pictures produced by the paper also add to the flavor of horror – the perversions associated with isolated behaviors, occurring in remote locations.  “The camp lay 20 miles from the nearest town in New South Wales, pictured, near Sydney.”  Another picture allegedly discloses what the buildings the family lived in “probably looked like,” ramshackle, corrugated wood structures near collapse.

Comments are also made about travelling habits of the family. Rather than broadening the mind, the family moved to escape it, existing in a near nomadic manner, drifting “around the continent, living in remote communities, the parents turning a blind eye to sexual contact between their children.” In travel, they kept “the rest of the world at arm’s length, they lived and travelled like ferals in old vans and survived on welfare cheques. Over time, the family tree began to get very complicated.”

The Daily Mail has the complete picture of how the righteous and reactionary approach matters of moral and physical degeneration. There are unnatural relations.  Family members engaged in “wicked sex games.” There is a desire to repudiate “standard” and civilized society. There is a reliance, notwithstanding that repudiation, to draw on the tax payer. Not merely was the Colt family abusive and lecherous – it was also leaching off society.

Another tabloid, the Irish Sunday World (Dec. 12), made its pitch to high drama.  “Under the eye of the family matriarch, Betty Colt, who slept in the marital bed with her brother, the children copulated with each other and with adults.”

The material being pieced together about the Colt family was sketchy, but the papers were seeking some copy. Any copy. Of particular interest were the views of an unnamed neighbor and classmate, claiming that the boy named Duke “used to shower at school in the morning before he mixed with the other students.”  According to the acquaintance, “The teachers used to let him [bathe] because of the BO.”

Could the family have been discovered earlier? Donal MacIntyre of Sunday World (Dec. 15) pondered.  Had, claims MacIntyre, authorities “followed the trail of animal genital mutilation that the family left in its wake as they crisscrossed Australia, avoiding detection”, they might have been discovered. The genital abuse of animals and an assortment of “other cruelties to pets and horses” is considered a “red flag” to social services, argues MacIntyre. Reporting of such abuses by animal charities is mandatory in some U.S. states, as these may well be indicators of other abuses, be it of neglect or wrongs against children. 

In smug indignation, MacIntyre would claim with psychological certitude that, “The evidence of such cruelty would have been everywhere they lived but no-one in authority was able to see the significance in these acts against animals, allowing a sexual ‘free for all’ through the generations to go unchecked for decades.” Taking a swipe at the “nightmare of ‘homozygosity’” the author found room to comment that such a problem was prevalent in the Middle East and “among some Asian communities where cousins intermarry but inbreeding on this scale is a rare event.”

Not only was he casting aspersions on the so named Colt family and an assortment of other cultural tendencies, but the state of psychology and criminal investigation in the Australian state of New South Wales. 

With this tabloid bonanza, Melbourne-based director and screen writer Grant Scicluna could only wonder on Twitter (Dec. 13) what had sparked this. “There must be a reason why only the tabloid media’s going after the Cold incest family story.  Sensationalised to the point of snapping?”

The children are now in foster care. Apprehended violence orders have been made to restrain the parents approaching their offspring. A mother is facing charges relating to an attempt to remove one of the children from care. Four mothers are disputing the genetic tests, arguing that the children had come from alternate fathers. Unfortunately for them, the fathers are either dead or beyond location.

Cruelties need context. Needless assertions of civilizational standards should be treated with caution – there is much to suggest that civilizations, at least historically, abound in incest, be it symbolically or in actuality. That child protection is fundamental is unquestionable. But morally nervous displays, such as those of the Daily Mail, are themselves cultural indicators – rather than being seen as victims, the family in question is deemed a circus act in the forum of morality, an abnormality to be punished. They clamour for the flood, vengeful punishment and final resolution.  That an incest ridden family in rural Australia has seemingly become the great focal point of indignation and psychological pondering suggests more about its interpreters than it might about a family. 


Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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