Dystopian fiction: The Natural Way of Things

Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel, The Natural Way of Things, won the Stella Prize and Indie Book of the Year and Indie Novel of the Year in 2016. I was struck when I heard about it by the seed of a story it was based on: the Hay Institution for Girls, established in 1961, not closed until 1974. Wikipedia gives this horrifying description of it:

Hay Institution for Girls was a prison that had been closed down for years but was re-opened in 1961 as a place of punishment for girls who would not comply with the strict regime of the Parramatta girls home.

It was a place of inhumane and extreme discipline for girls between the ages of 14 and 18 and was established by the NSW Department of Child and Social Welfare as an annex to the Parramatta Girls Home. Disciplinary practices and routines were modelled on a similar institution for boys operating since 1945 in Tamworth, NSW.

The daily routine dehumanised the girls through the use of hard labour (e.g. breaking concrete, digging paths and gardens, scrubbing concrete floors and walls, sewing leather, and ‘practices’ which were carried out with regularity at predetermined intervals during the day.

This routine did not alter from one day to the next – up at 6am and return to their cells at 7pm. Hourly checks were made on the girls at night, causing sleep deprivation, and they were required to lie in their beds facing the door. No education or schooling was provided and girls who resisted, or who showed any form of attitude, were locked in isolation, placed on a restricted diet and had their sentences extended.

Typically girls sent to the Hay Institution had come from poor socio-economic backgrounds, many were indigenous children, many had been state wards from a very young age.

The first reunion of the Girls Institution took place on the 3 and 4 of March 2007.

I was born in Hay, and lived on a farm 24 miles east of Hay on the Murrumbidgee River until 1954. I knew of the Hay gaol but did not know about this girls’ institution in the years it was open. In fact, it remained a state secret until a former resident returned there in 2004 in the company of an ABC journalist: http://www.parragirls.org.au/hay-girls-institution.php

Spoiler Alert! Wood has taken this bitter seed and grown a strange, cruel world from it; one in which I would not expect to survive without losing my sanity or my life. Yet most of the girls do survive, though to what end is questionable. The enigmatic ending leaves us unclear as to what fate awaits the girls, become dirty, smelly, skinny, hairy, wild creatures, who gladly clamber onto the bus that comes at last, they believe, to rescue them. But there are hints that it will not be the utopia of return to the ‘civilised’ life they have dreamed, surrounded by cosmetics, chocolates, hairbrushes, face cream, lip gloss, shavers, and all the pleasures of consumerism. As for the two central characters, Yolanda and Verla, who are made of stronger stuff, their fate is unknown too. But we are given enough clues throughout the story to imagine it.

Two questions stayed with me when I closed the book:  what is the moral of this inverted fable? And what is the meaning of the title, its hidden message?

I call it an inverted fable because a fable is a story in which animals, plants, objects, legendary characters are anthropomorphised and a moral is drawn. In this story, humans become animal, become wild; a couple of them become part of the natural world that surrounds them, while others (the lesser characters) are reduced to a state somewhere between animal and human. Their humanness is in their memories, in the tasks of survival that they share, and in the basic fellowship of shared life in this prison. There is even compassion, an unexpected flower out of so much pain, despair, fear and loathing. But essentially, they are not changed, these ‘ordinary girls’; just reduced to a common denominator. As for Yolanda and Verla, they become animal in different ways, not as a degradation but as a return to nature in all its wildness, beauty and freedom. Freedom and the key to group survival and personal freedom come to Yolanda in hunting rabbits for food and for their skins, until she is ‘fully animal, released.’ For Verla it comes in foraging for mushrooms, the edible, the hallucinogenic, and the toxic — her secret weapon and key to the ultimate release if she needs it. There is also the promise or possibility of escape into becoming ‘that other self of her own’, which she identifies with a wild creature she has dreamed of.

The difference between these two girls who form a bond of love and mutual recognition and the others is that they see through the artificiality, the falseness, the illusions of the world they have lost, of the betrayals and the deep misogyny they were subjected to.

So I think the answer to my first question is also the answer to my second: that the moral of the fable IS the natural way of things: a life close to nature, simple, brutal, honest. Not the false world they have come from, where it is

as if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. They lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.

The key words here are ‘as if‘.  This is what the patriarchal society, the people in their old word,  condition women to think. In fact, it is not the natural way of things; it is the unnatural way of things.

That ‘we do it to ourselves’, we get what we ask for, we deserve it, is the central message of misogyny. When, years later, I asked a lover with whom I briefly reunited why he had assaulted me on several occasions, his reply was, ‘you asked for it’. Even though he was no longer prone to violent rages, I knew then we had no future together. And finally, I became free of the desire to be loved, to be needed by a man.

I’m not suggesting that Wood’s message is that we women need to return to nature and give up our sexuality. But in the misogynist, artificial world where these girls have been scapegoated, imprisoned and tortured, escape lies in nature, in solitude, in refusal. Refusal to be used, to be ‘an empty space to be occupied.’

A bleak message, but one that is graced by the wild beauty of nature. Even in death, the death of a rabbit, ‘the cold private slit of white bone beneath’ its ‘thin furry skin between the ears’.

Yolanda, the rabbit killer, grows in primitive strength.

It was a vigour to do with air, and the earth. Animal blood and guts, the moon and the season. It was beyond her named self, beyond girl, or female. Beyond human. It was to do with muscle sliding around bone, to do with animal speed and scent and bloody heartbeat and breath.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, my favourite philosophers, would have loved this story. They wrote at length of becoming, becoming-intense, becoming-animal, becoming-imperceptible. In such becomings, the self is only a threshold, a door.

This extraordinary fable gripped me in ways I didn’t expect. I felt detached, even alienated, for the first 100 pages, and almost abandoned it. But as I continued, I became fully engaged, compelled to read on, scepticism and distaste suspended, and fell in love with its strange beauty.

The last time I remember feeling like this about a work of fiction was when I read Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy.

 

Educated by Tara Westover: One woman’s emancipation from mental slavery

One morning, when Tara Westover sits in the college library at Cambridge, feeling a fraud, her friend Drew sends her a song via email. She listens and is gripped.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery

None but ourselves can free our mind.

The irony of these lines is that their author, Bob Marley, had held to his Rastafarian belief in a whole body, and refused amputation of a cancerous toe; he had died a year after he wrote those words. He becomes, to Tara, a symbol of herself; she has renounced her father’s world, but has not found the courage to live fully in the world beyond it — of freedom of thought, opportunity, self-definition. She has not found the courage to amputate her family (especially her father’s tyranny) from her definition of herself. Only when she does so will she be able to emancipate herself.

It is difficult, almost impossible, to write a meaningful, succinct review about this extraordinary book. But then, I imagine a voice saying, “if I could write my impossible life, you should be able to write a review of my story of it!” And indeed, I believe it must have felt impossible for Westover to write her story, considering she is still in her early thirties, and the book ends soon after she graduated with a PhD when she was twenty-seven. Considering that she started her university education at age seventeen, after years of little or no schooling, and no reading apart from the scriptures and her father’s Mormon tracts.

I’ve read it twice, and the second time it gripped me sooner and harder than it had on the first reading. Now, looking at the big picture, I see that there are two strands: Tara’s psychological struggle to emerge from the prison that was her family, and her intellectual struggle, to get an education, to begin to think for herself instead of accepting her father’s word as law. The two are intertwined, of course. The intellectual transformation begins when she decides, at her brother Tyler’s urging, to sit for the entrance exam that will allow her to go to college. Tara had believed that college was irrelevant; that she would marry at age eighteen or nineteen, settle on a corner of the farm, help her mother with her herbal remedies and midwifery practice, and have children of her own. This was the role of a woman who lived within the Mormon faith.

But it is the Mormon faith with a twist; her father is a fundamentalist survivalist, who believes that the End of Days is coming, that the government, the health care system, and the educational institutions are part of Satan’s conspiracy against God, and that the only way to live in God’s light and truth is to store up provisions, to be fully armed, and to avoid schools and hospitals and government regulations. So when Tara decides to take her brother’s advice, she has to educate herself from scratch in English, science and maths.

Meantime, she works in her father’s scrapyard, in hard, dirty, dangerous conditions, and is often put at great risk of injury or death by her father’s reckless, driven energy. Her brother Shawn is both her protector and her tormentor. His close and tender bond with Tara, his ‘Siddle Lister’ (little sister) changes as she reaches puberty, and he begins to accuse her of being a whore. Gifted with a beautiful voice and natural musicality, she takes part in several musicals put on in town (surprisingly, her father allows her to do this) and when Shawn sees her talking with a boy and applying makeup, he calls her a whore. One morning early, she wakes from sleep to find his hands gripping her throat. He drags her into the kitchen; she falls to the floor, he grabs her and twists her body into a lock, demanding that she admit she is a whore. She is saved on this occasion by her brother Tyler, who unexpectedly returns home, confronts Shawn, and tosses Tara his car keys so she can escape.

This is one of many horrific episodes. Each time, Shawn apologises afterwards. His violence, cruelty, and volatility are intensified after a horrific accident when he falls from a pallet twenty feet in the air, onto a half-finished concrete wall, hitting it head first. He survives, more damaged than ever.

Tara goes to Brigham Young University, where she is completely at sea at first. Her worst faux pas is to ask a professor what the word Holocaust means. And so her real education begins.

Meanwhile, her struggle to find her own truth, to break free of her father’s tyranny, her mother’s compliance with his authority and complicity in his injustices and abuses, and of Shawn’s brutal, unpredictable love-hate hold over her, comes to the fore whenever she returns home on vacation, and is forced to work again in the scrap yard, until finally she finds the courage to walk away.

Even after she has won a scholarship to Cambridge and discovered the delights of culture, history, philosophy, the great thinkers, she continues to doubt herself. A turning point comes when she discovers the forerunners of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, and confronts her own ingrained understanding that the male is the decider, the female is the one to be called to order. That to want to be a decider was unnatural, perverted. Then she reads Mill’s sentence, that “Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known.”

Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are woman.

From then on, slowly and haltingly, she begins to define herself. Back home, she loses, gives in, in a series of confrontations with Shawn, when her parents collude to deny his violence and Shawn threatens her with death. Again and again, her own reality is shaken, twisted, almost strangled by the family myth: that her father is a prophet inspired by God, her mother is a divinely inspired healer, Shawn has been cleansed by the Atonement of Christ and is a new man, and she, Tara, because she will not accept her father’s offer of a priesthood blessing, is evil and damned.

She survives all this and a breakdown, has counselling for a year at university, pulls herself out of the pit, wins entrance to Harvard, and completes her PhD. She has lost her family, but she has gained an education. She spent two years enumerating her father’s flaws, justifying her decision to cut him from her life, but the guilt remained; until she accepted her decision on its own terms:

Because I needed it, not because he deserved it.
It was the only way I could love him.

She leaves behind forever the sixteen-year-old self she saw in the mirror the night Shawn had threatened her with a knife, the child imprisoned by the family myths.

That night, in no longer identifying, becoming one with, that child, she finds herself.

This is her education. So the two trajectories, the escape from cruelty, ignorance, tyranny, and misguided, domineering love, and emancipation through the intellectual worlds of history, philosophy and art, are completed triumphantly, yet quietly, at great cost.

War stories for children

I would normally not review a book for primary school children about war. But one came across my desk recently, and I was struck by the loving detail with which it tells the story of an Anzac soldier from a country town.

My Pop was a Kangaroo Anzac, by Deborah Wheeler, illustrated by the author and Lauren Hakala, is available through the Mates4Mates website (see link to book title above). $2 from every copy sold is given to Mates4Mates:

Mates4Mates doesn’t receive any government funding, so we’re reliant on the generosity of people like you to make an impact on the lives of our Mates (serving and ex-serving Australian Defence Force personnel and their families). There’s so many ways you can raise vital funds to help us keep our programs and service running for free for our Mates.

William James Wheeler was the author’s grandfather. He was one of the original Wagga Wagga Kangaroo ANZACs. On the 1st December 1915, eighty young men of Wagga Wagga, NSW, set out on the Kangaroo recruitment march. The goal was to recruit as many young men as they could from country towns to go to Europe and fight the Germans in World War One. The march took them 350 miles (563 kilometres) to Campbelltown, whence they went by train to Sydney; it took them thirty-eight days — the longest recruitment march in Australia’s history. They ended up with about 230 recruits.

Along the way, they were greeted, and food was donated by townsfolk and farmers, especially at Goulburn, where they celebrated Christmas. After some basic training, Bill Wheeler and the other Kangaroos were given a forty-eight hour pass to return home to say goodbye to their families; then they set sail for South Africa, where they had further training before being shipped to France. Nine months after arriving in France, Bill was wounded in action; he was the only survivor of his group and lay for hours before he was rescued under cover of nightfall. His arm was so badly shattered by shell fragments that he never returned to action.  He spent seven months in various hospitals in France and England before he was shipped back to Australia and discharged.

Bill was a survivor, while many of his comrades were killed. His arm was never the same again; he had a total of twenty-one operations on it and had to wear a leather brace for the rest of his life. But he married and had a large family, and worked until his death in 1961.

This touching story is told with loving detail and vivid illustrations. A double-paged spread lists the names of those young men in his battalion who embarked from Sydney with him in 1916.

Stories like this, told in simple words with vivid detail, bring home to children what it meant to live in a time of war, and what we owe to those young men who sacrificed their lives. War is not glorified in this story, but its effects on men and women’s lives are narrated in fresh and interesting detail, for Primary School age children and their families.

My Pop was a Kangaroo Anzac can be ordered through the Mates4Mates website.

LIfe or death decisions: Ian McEwan’s The Children Act

 

Recently, I saw the film of The Children Act, with script written by Ian McEwan, and the lead role of Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, played by Emma Thompson.

I absolutely loved the film, and will be adding the dvd to my library. Above all, Emma Thompson gripped me  in every nuance of her performance. She plays a serious, focused, astute judge with high standards of care and concern for the welfare of the children around whose cases the Family Division of the court devolves.  The secondary characters, the scenes, the dialogue, the filming, are all superb.

So I turned to the book, which I hadn’t read. On my first reading, I was disappointed. It seemed taut and dry in comparison to the intense, introverted drama of the film, where feelings were so tightly held in check, occasionally spilling over in uncharacteristic or reckless gestures, with strains of innocent romance, passion, elegiac beauty, glimpses of a life that spills out between the convoluted, rational laws of the land. And I found myself skimming over the lengthy digressions into legal cases and behind the scenes at the law courts.

After a gap of a few weeks, I’ve just re-read it, and it held me better this time. But I still resist the digressions into legal cases and the intricacies of music (Fiona is a classical pianist in her (rare) spare time). McEwan has done a superb job in creating the consciousness of the 59-year-old judge, whose marriage is threatened by her husband’s desire to have an affair.

I”ve become your brother. It’s cozy and sweet and I love you, but before I drop dead, I want one big passionate affair.”

They have not had sex, he informs her, for seven weeks and a day. Little by little, after he exits, we learn the reasons for her emotional retreat and numbness. She had to deliver a judgement as to whether conjoint twins should be separated, and the parasitic life of the weaker twin sacrificed to give his brother the chance of a life. Her judgement was elegant and correct, but she couldn’t let go of the case in her mind, and her own childlessness was the shadow in the wings. The case had shown to her the ‘blind and purposeless nullity’ of a failure in division of the egg:

Merely a gene trascribed in error, an enzyme recipe skewed, a chemical bond severed. A process of natural wastage as indifferent as it was pointless…. She was the one who had dispatched a child from the world, argued him out of existence in thirty-four elegant pages.

Now, in the midst of her domestic crisis, she has to judge a difficult, urgent case, around a boy who is three months short of turning 18 and becoming, legally, an adult. He is dying of leukemia unless he has a blood transfusion. His parents are refusing on his behalf, because their Jehovah’s Witness religion holds that it is a sin to take into one’s body the blood of another. Fiona decides to do something unusual in the court. She will visit the boy in hospital to ascertain for herself whether the boy, Adam, understands his situation clearly.

The meeting in the hospital is a translucent scene. The judge and the boy begin their dance with the shadow of death. He tells her of his belief that Satan is working actively in the world against God, and that he intends to ‘crush him by obeying God’s commandments’ and dying.

Adam plays with her, a mischievous, gifted, provoking child, until she gets under his skin by warning him of the risks, not only of a painful, suffocating death, but of a partial recovery leaving him permanently damaged, if he does not have a transfusion. The mood shifts, and he reads her a poem he has written. She tells him it has ‘a touch, a very small touch, mind, of real poetic genius.’

She prepares to leave, after more circling round the question of life or death. He pleads with her to stay. To smooth her departure, she asks to see his violin, and he plays a tune, Benjamin Britten’s setting of the Yeats poem, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’. She knows the tune well. She takes an even bigger risk, and asks him to play it one more time, and she sings it. This sets the seal on their relationship, which is wildly unequal.

His devotion to her has all the passion and idealism of a youth’s first love. She, a married woman in her sixtieth year, resumes her life in the courts and broods on her husband’s betrayal of her. Adam recovers after a transfusion. She goes on circuit, and he follows her and makes an impossible, yet innocent, proposition.

Fiona’s unwitting enchantment of this ‘lovely boy’, her gift to him of life which has a consequence she could not have foreseen, her moral struggles over right actions towards him when he pursues her, unfold over the remaining scenes in the story. The tragic ending is both shadowed forth and unexpected, all the more shattering because she discovers the truth almost by accident. McEwan’s delicate and sensitive narrative holds in balance the conflicts between religion, the law, reputation, the child’s welfare, and the passion for life and meaning that escapes the taut, silken threads of all these constraints and spills over with messy consequences.

Ultimately, if there is a moral to this story, it is that life and meaning are larger than the constraints of society and its institutions, and transgressions and their consequences are human and inevitable.

 

 

 

Death of a great writer: Amos Oz

Long as I have lived (a year less than the Israeli writer Amos Oz, who died recently) I have not read any books by Israeli writers. Until I started reading Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, on the recommendation of a friend. Wow! Why did it take me so long? I’ve never read a memoir—or a book, for that matter—like it.

How to begin to describe it? Start with broad strokes. It’s both an inner memoir, about the experiences of a sensitive, gifted child born to an oddly matched couple: his father, Arieh, from Vilna in Poland; his mother, Fania, from Rovno, then in Poland, now in Ukraine. Both their families had been forced to join the diaspora by the ” violent hatred of Jews that filled the streets of Europe in the mid-thirties and spread to the universities.”

Much of the first third of the book fills in for us a complex historical context for  Oz’s family, the backgrounds of mother and father and their parents. The overriding theme is the parents’ and their friends’ nostalgia for Europe, for the rich culture they had left behind. This background is set against the present reality of their impoverished life in a poor quarter of Jerusalem, crammed into a tiny two-room basement flat, the father working as a librarian in the daytime and  labouring at night over his card index, the mother keeping meticulous house in the mornings, and reading and dreaming in the mornings and into the night. Arieh was a would-be scholar, master of many languages, with a remarkable memory, a passion for etymology, and an encyclopedic knowledge. He was also a Zionist, though afraid of their bombs and  rifles, and an atheist. His flaw, as identified by Oz, was his pedantry and lack of a sense of humour; he was a chatterbox, afraid of silences, and “endeavoured always to be pleasant and amusing, and endlessly repeated the same repertoire of jokes…”. His dream was to be an academic like his famous uncle Joseph, who had written his magnum opus on Jesus of Nazareth.

Fania, on the other hand, was a dreamer, an observer and a storyteller, and filled her receptive son with stories haunted by the supernatural and the unheimlich, the uncanny, the weird, the unexplained. Her stories contain happenings and actions from the dark side of life, filled with mythic and gothic overtones.”My father had a weakness for the momentous, whereas my mother was fascinated by yearning and surrender.” Just as Arieh was disappointed in his dream of being a lecturer, even a professor, Fania was disappointed, Oz imagines, by her life as a bourgeois housewife, and found her escape in reading.

Amos gets his passion for storytelling from her, but adapts it to his own latter-generational consciousness, which shifts in his teenage from the stereotypes of the heroic, the gothic and the romantic to a recognition of the everyday, ordinary, tawdry reality of life.

… I suddenly realised that the written world does not depend on Milan or London, but always revolves around the hand that is writing whereever it happens to be writing: where you are the centre of the universe.

A profound revolution in consciousness for a teenage boy, and a liberation from the ghosts and hauntings of his past into the real world he inhabited.

Fairly early in the memoir, we discover that Oz’s mother died by her own hand when he was twelve-and-a-half, and she was 37. He tells us of his hurt and anger:

I was angry with her for leaving without saying goodbye, witout a hug, without a word of explanation… all through my childhood, she had never left me alone at the grocer’s, or in a strange courtyard, or in a public garden. How could she have done it?

The anger subsides, and in its place comes self-loathing. The story circles away from this question, to which there is no answer apart from the false one that she couldn’t love him because he didn’t deserve it. But in later, gentler passages, we are given a picture of her increasing depression and insomnia, her migraines, her despair. In the final chapter, he reconstructs the hours before her death, which took place when she was away from her husband and child. The book ends on a mourning note, reprising a refrain that runs through his childhood, of a little bird that inhabited the garden and sang over and over the five opening notes of Fur Elise by Beethoven—’Ti-da-di-da-di…”

…and she did not wake up in the morning either, or when the day grew brighter, and from the branches of the ficus tree in the garden of the hospital the bird Elise called to her in wonderment and called to her again and again in vain and yet it went on trying over and over again and it still tries sometimes.

The death of his mother is both the central theme of the book and the framework for young Amos’s development, from a precocious, dreamy, talkative bookworm, to a worker in a kibbutz and a fledgling writer. Yet the mother’s decline and death does not dominate the story. It is always there, looming in the background, but a rich tapestry of daily life and memorable moments from Oz’s childhood are woven over it. This is where I find it impossible to give an adequate review of this book, for it is so full of riches that I can only pick out one or two. I noted that it is both an external and internal memoir. There is a long section that describes the events leading to the partition of Palestine into two independent states, the withdrawal of the British, the ensuing war and the siege of the Jewish sector of Jerusalem. The siege lasted several months, and there was starvation, overcrowding and great suffering. Oz gives both historical facts and personal memories to create a dense picture of the time, and includes facts about atrocities committed on both sides, and by the British, whose position was apparently incoherent, partisan and self-serving.

Other sections of the book give us vivid close-ups of Amos’s life with his parents and their extended family and friends, his experiences of school, his troubled emergence into puberty, developing perception of others and the stories he imagines they inhabit, and his adolescent shame over his parents and their community.

…they were so alien, so burdensome. They belonged to the Diaspora. They were the generation of the wilderness. They were always full of demands and commands, they never let you breathe… And so at the age of fourteen and a half, a couple of years after my mother’s death, I killed my father and the whole of Jersualem, changed my name, and went on my own to Kibbutz Halda to live there over the ruins.

The last section of the book tells us more of his life on the kibbutz and the evolution of his spirit. The decline and death of his father from a heart attack is movingly narrated.

He left his body to science and I inherited his desk. These pages are being written on it, not tearfully, because my father was fundamentally opposed to tears, particularly in men.

The book closes, as I mentioned, with an account of his mother’s death, and ends with the sad broken refrain of the Elise bird.

This book has enriched my life, given me rich understanding of what it meant to be Jews who had fled persecution and the slaughter of millions, to make a life in a country remote in every way from the European countries they had inhabited, to go through the agonies of partition and struggle to create a way of life that would give them space to be themselves and a measure of safety. Layered upon that, it has given me a vivid, finely nuanced picture of the development of a gifted, creative child in a family psyche that has deep fracture lines, and the child’s emergence from this into an extraordinary career as a writer. Oz made a place for himself and his wife and children in a developing nation torn by their inheritance of a tragic past and by their struggle to create a space for themselves in an alien country surrounded by enemies. While he allows the reader to understand how it felt to be Jewish, he also empathically reflects on how the presence of the Jews displaced and dispossessed the natives of the country. No answers emerge, but understanding does.

 

 

 

Breaking the silence

When We Remember They Call Us Liars by Suzanne Covich joins a small, select company on my bookshelf; a company of memoirs that tell of surviving childhood abuse. Along with The Art of Disappearing by Elisabeth Hanscombe and The Lost Woman by Sydney Smith, it testifies against the cruelty and abuse that many young children suffer in a family dominated by a violent, narcissistic parent who repeatedly uses his or her children as props to their own twisted needs. This is a remarkable story, not least because the author has achieved so much after surviving childhood abuse in a family fractured by a violent alcoholic father.

Trigger alert: details of some violent scenes are summarised in this review.

Usually, the abusive parent is able to get away with their crimes because the other parent is either absent or complicit or unable to stand up against them, and because neighbours and other family members are afraid, or find it safer and easier to turn a blind eye and pretend things are ‘normal’. The parent may be, as in Suzanne’s father’s case, an outwardly ‘good citizen’, a churchgoer, charming, respected; while at home, he drinks, he bashes his wife and children, and at night, he creeps into bed with one, then the other of his daughters.

 

Suzanne is a feisty, clever child who is a ‘Ten out of Ten’ kid, plays the shepherd in the school Christmas concert, then, when she gets bigger, plays Mary, the mother of Christ; year after year she is Dux of her class, and books are her dearest friends. But she hides terrible secrets. She wets her pants and wets her bed, and being the Headmaster’s favourite doesn’t stop him from caning her to make an example of her: “As the cane came down, I stood firm and pissed on the floor. No tears.”

Her other defence against unbearable pain is to blank out. The worst episode of abuse in her young life, when her screams don’t stop her father, she blanks out and has no memory of what happened after this.

I’d told myself that he did not break me. No. He did not. Even though I have absolutely no memory of him leaving the room, I told myself for most of my life that the way I responded to him must have blown him away…

Her mother, apparently, was absent on this occasion; one of the many times that she deserted her family emotionally, sometimes physically. She found her own escapes, while her daughter struggled to survive and to find a safe place to be. In her teens, after the episode when she blanked out, she takes refuge with her older married sister for a while, then  finds consolation in the arms of an older man, a migrant fruitpicker; he eases her pain for a while with his tenderness. When her mother eventually plucks up courage to leave her father and goes to the city to live with her girlfriend, the family splits up. Suzanne and her twin sister Ella stay with her father’s sister and her family. Here, she learned to make herself “even more invisible than before”, not taking up too much space. But she misses her mother, and wants to join her. When her aunt discovers this — “How could you? After all she’s done for you?” — she takes her to her. For a while, the fractured family is united, without the father. But the “chance at a new life” doesn’t work out. The mother takes Suzanne out of school and makes her work at the old people’s home where she herself works as a cleaner. She lies about Suzanne’s age (she was under 16), and pulls Ella out of school too, to look after the younger boys.

That was the end of Suzanne and her sister’s school days. This was the sixties, when there was no supporting parent’s benefit, and the Education Department backed the mother. A worse betrayal awaits her, when her mother brings a man home, and Suzanne, asleep in her mum’s big bed, is coerced into a threesome. Once again, she is unable to remember what happened.

The story ends when Suzanne, unable to trust her mother any more, leaves the world she knows; her ticket to leave is a man she has met; her mother’s response is to demand that Suzanne give her her savings: “I’ll need that until I figure out how to manage without you.”

The narrative voice is transparent, in that Covich does not try to reconstruct scenes where she has memory gaps. She shows us some of the process of writing, when she consults her siblings about their memories and pieces happenings and scenes together.

This story is immensely sad;  this bright, feisty, funny, gutsy, loyal kid, captured for us on these pages in vivid detail and naked prose that is often raw and sometimes lyrical, deserves so much more. The consolation is that she has been able to write her story, that twenty years after she left school too early, she returns, gets a PhD, and becomes a teacher; and that the memoir has been published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press (2012) and is still in print.

 

Review of Traumata by Meera Atkinson

About three months ago I wrote a review of Traumata, by Meera Atkinson, and it was accepted by the journal Life Writing. For some reason, it didn’t get published or get a doi. I have addressed that now, and it is up online. Please visit the link and read it. It is a book that deserves to be read by any feminist or feminist supporter! https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/AbGasQ9MWnwpU88c9Zux/full

Stories of abuse

 

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent is a debut novel by a young American writer that has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Its shocking subject matter and the way it is narrated have attracted many 5-star reviews and fewer 1-2 star ones. The majority of reviewers seem to think it is a masterpiece, albeit, some think, a flawed one. The minority think it is offensive in the way the abuse is narrated, flawed in its presentation of the mind of a 14-year-old girl, and that it indulges in gratuitous descriptions of violence and misogyny. Some take offence at the fact that a man has presumed to write about the inner world of a young girl who is the victim of abuse.

I am a qualified admirer of the book. I read it, on the whole, with total attention, and found many of the scenes compelling, shocking, insightful, and some quite touching and funny.

Trigger warning ++. I don’t know how a woman who has suffered violence, torture and rape by a loved father, or by any man, would react to this book. I can fully understand if they would find it so distasteful that they would not persist in reading it, or even reading about it.

Despite my positive experience of reading it, I am left, like some other reviewers, with some disquiet about the writer’s handling of the scenes of violence. Some of the passages left me unsettled, unsure of my response; I wondered if these passages were meant to titillate and shock at the same time. One such passage is when Turtle, the heroine, is forced by her father Martin to hang from the rafter while he plays with knife that was given her by her grandfather, and which her father has spoiled in his polishing of the edge; he ‘plays’ with the knife in a way that threatens her, and in the end, actually injures her. Another passage that horrified me was the one when the little waif girl, Cayenne, whom Turtle’s father has brought back with him after his three months absence, is subjected to torture. I won’t go into details; the horrible thing is not only that a young girl is forced to make herself the target of harm, but that Turtle is coerced by her father into using Cayenne as a target.

Some passages, like the oft-repeated descriptions of Turtle (the heroine) doing her routines of cleaning her guns, and her father coaching her in shooting, became tedious and seemed overdone. We get that the father is obsessed with guns, in his paranoid belief that the world is dangerous and deadly, and that the only way to survive is to be armed and more dangerous than any possible attacker. We get that Turtle is infected by this, has taken on his obsession, and modelled herself on his stance. Less gun talk would have been enough.

That said, there is much that I admire in this book. The definitive turning point in Turtle’s psyche is when she takes pity on Cayenne and becomes her protector, after a scene when the father makes her the object of his lust after Turtle has rejected him. This pity, which becomes a kind of love, is her redemption, and gives her the courage to face up to her father’s psychopathic hatred and oppose him. An earlier turning point is in her accidental friendship with Jacob and Brett, two teenagers who hang out together and explore the wonderful natural wilderness that the story inhabits.

This is the setting of a delightful section of the book, when Turtle sets off into the woods and comes upon two boys, a year or so older than her, who are veritable babes in the wood, on their Big Adventure, and get lost.  Turtle stalks them for a while and eventually appears and helps them set up a makeshift camp for the night, then find their way out of the woods.

The boys talk in a way that is alarming and exciting to her—fantastical, gently celebratory, silly. To Turtle, slow of speech, with her inward and circular mind, their capacity for language is dizzying. She feels brilliantly included within that province of things she wants, lit up from within by possibility. Giddy and nervous, she watches them, chewing on her fingertips. A new world is opening up for her. She thinks, these boys will be there when I go to high school. She thinks, and what would that be like—to have friends there, to have friends like this?

Heartbreakingly, Turtle returns to her father, and when he finds out that she has fallen for the boy Jacob, he beats her, and insists that she is his. From then on, things get worse.

The final denouement is shocking and violent; Turtle escapes, but narrowly, and much damage and hurt is sustained in the process, and those who try to help her are traumatised too, physically as well as psychically.

This is such a complex novel, it is hard to talk about it without doing a scene by scene analysis. I’m left with  a slight unease about the climax, not in its violence, but in the sequel, where Turtle not only is nurtured and begins to recover physically, but is redeemed emotionally by the love and protection of her schoolteacher, Anna. Not that it could not happen thus, but that Turtle seems to have quite shed that toughness, that aura of hatred and suspicion and misogyny that had been her protective shell (hence the name Turtle?). Guns seems to have faded from her life, and her therapy is gardening, trying to grow vegetables. But she is still severely traumatised.

It feels like Anna [her school teacher, now her guardian] is lying to her, because how can Anna, who has seen Turtle’s life, how can she say that things will work out?The truth is that things do not work out, that there are no solutions, and you can go a year, a whole year, and be no better, no more healed, maybe even worse…

She waits with trepidation for the school homecoming dance, as she knows Jacob will come to it, and she had told him, when she was in recovery at the hospital, that she didn’t want to see him for a year. The story ends with Anna and Turtle on the verge of going to the dance; we don’t know if they do, or what happens. But Turtle has Anna, “the only person in the world whom Anna knows believes for sure that Turtle will wind up all right…”

So love and redemption are the final notes, though there is no miracle of healing. I look forward to more writing by this author.

Writing My Second Memoir

The memoir of my first marriage and the loss of my children has been a long time gestating, with many revisions. Now, it is sitting in the wings, one step away from publication. I applied for a fellowship at Katharine Susannah Prichard Writer’s Centre, in the hills in Perth, and have just learned that I am successful. So in the first two weeks of September next year, I’ll be sitting in Katharine’s little house, looking out at the bush, the birds, the sky, and doing one last revision of Lost. I am pretty happy with it, but not sure I have the right structure; at present it’s chronological. So I’m inviting a mentor who has a published memoir to help me.

Here is the excerpt I submitted for my KSP application. The context is that, after I returned to Sydney without my children, who were abducted by their father and taken to America, I was lost, drifting. I tried to return to tertiary studies, but it wasn’t the lifeline I needed. So one day, I opened the paper. On one page was an ad for bus drivers. On the other, an ad for graduates to apply to do their mental health training at North Ryde Psychiatric Centre. I thought briefly about driving a bus around the streets of Sydney, and opted for the mental health job. It was my lifeline for the next twelve years. I learned that there was a very fine line between my life and those of the broken people I was nursing. There but for the grace of god, I thought every day, go I.

A fine line

Well, it’s not the brilliant career I once dreamed of, but it is a world, a different world, one that makes most of the conventions I have been brought up by seem hollow. Here, in the acute admissions ward that is my first placement, I find women and men who have been brought up to be normal, but who, through some misfortune of genetics or of life events, have fallen foul of the Australian dream. Young, old, middle-aged, fat, thin, ugly, attractive, well-educated, average, Australian-born, immigrant—any one of them could be my neighbour, my friend, a member of my family. There is nothing exceptional about any of them except that they are here, cast up on the shores of madness and neurosis.

Lost. As am I. Yet there is a fine line between us, one that puts me here as a nurse, a therapist, a custodian of their lives, and them as my patients, for as long as they stay.

After my first week of orientation, I am told to keep close observations on a woman who is acutely psychotic. Close obs, as we call it, is the only way we have, apart from the tranquillisers prescribed by the registrar, of containing someone who is disturbed, in a newish hospital where there are no locked doors. Straight jackets and locked wards began to be discarded in the late ’60s when most psychiatric patients — except for the hopelessly institutionalised, severely disabled, criminally insane or dangerous ones who haunt the corridors of the older institutions — were liberated to another kind of nightmare, the revolving door of short-term admissions, drugs and/or electroconvulsive therapy, and a half-life in hostels or digs or with a family whose tolerance is worn threadbare.

My patient has been given an injection to calm her, and is lying on the narrow bed, her eyes staring at the bare white ceiling and occasionally flickering from side to side in frightened fascination. The drug has stopped her restless pacing and explosive utterances, but has not stilled her troubled mind. Every now and then, she turns her head, frowning in concentration, as if she is listening to someone, then closes her eyes tight and turns her head away, or shakes her head in silent argument.

I ask her what she is watching, who she is listening to. She tells me that God and the devil are both in the room, and are fighting for her soul.

‘But Eva,’ I say, reaching for her hand, trying to reassure her, ‘ you know they’re not real. I can’t see or hear them. You’re not well, that’s why you’re imagining them.’

She turns her head and looks at me, her eyes locking with mine. ‘What the fuck do you know? Because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.’

I can think of nothing to say. A big emptiness comes over me, a loss of words.

After a long silence, I say ‘Sorry, Eva. You’re right. I don’t know what you’re seeing or hearing. Do you want to tell me about it?’

For the next couple of hours, she talks to me about her struggle with God and the devil, her desire to die, her rage at the torment they are putting her through.

‘I wish they’d both fuck off, leave me alone, let me live again! I want to be normal again, be a mum to my kids, have some fun! It’s not fair—why did they choose me?’

Immobilised

I get up in the morning to go to an early shift at the pysch hospital, and notice two red lumps on my right leg. I cut myself shaving a couple of days ago. Yesterday I noticed a red streak near my ankle. After a busy shift, I go to the staff doctor.

His examination is perfunctory. ‘Hmm. Is infection. I give you antibiotic.’ He scribbles a script for a sulfur drug.

I take a dose in the evening. When I wake in the morning, my legs and torso are covered in a red, itchy rash, and the lumps are looking angrier, with smaller ones erupting. I go back to the doctor.

‘Hmmm. Is reaction to antibiotic. I give you antihistamine and new script for penicillin. I give you injection now, you get tablets from chemist, take three times a day.’

When I get home, I take off my panty-hose and examine my legs. The lumps have spread. Under the rash, many swellings, some no bigger than a small coin, some as large as a hen egg, are pushing their way to the surface, strange subterranean growths, foci of heat and pain. Alarmed for the first time, I go to my GP in Balmain. After she’s examined me thoroughly, she sits facing me, looking concerned.

‘I’d like you to have some tests, Anna. I think you have an auto-immune disorder, but I don’t know why you have it. There may be some underlying illness, like diabetes, that’s causing it. I’ll write some forms for you, and I want you to take them to your nearest pathology clinic first thing in the morning. You must fast from midnight.’

I go home and crawl into bed, after a couple of glasses of wine.

 

Dreams of the Centre: Sunrise on Uluru

Yesterday, I was delighted to receive a copy of the  literary journal, Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian/NZ literature. My painting of Uluru is on the cover. I painted this a couple of years ago from a friend’s photo. Later that year, the editor of Antipodes contacted me, and said he’d seen my Facebook artist’s page, and would love to reproduce one of my paintings on the cover of the journal. He chose Uluru. 

The journal issue was delayed for a year-and-a-half, due to changes on the editorial board. But at last, it’s out, and my Uluru is on it!

This means so much more to me now, as I have recently been to Uluru, and although I didn’t see it at sunrise, I did see it at sunset, and took a couple of photos in the changing light.

Perhaps, when I get my art space organised in the flat I live in now, I’ll do a sunset painting of the rock.

This morning, before I woke, I dreamed that I was walking along a long, straight, dirt road, and as I looked to the east, I saw that the rising sun had painted the whole landscape a rich, dark red, just as it appears in my  painting. Except the rock wasn’t there. Perhaps that symbolises my need to go back there and see the rock again, in the early morning.