Sunday, May 17, 2015

The threat within ourselves

Inside the front cover of a paper back copy of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice –faded yellow with its spine held together by sticky tape – someone has scratched out the first initial of my older sister’s name and changed it to a younger sister’s initial.  The book was presumably a hand-me-down for school.

Underneath my sister’s name, my father has written the words: GEKKEN EN DWAZEN SCHRYVEN HUN NAMEN OP DEUREN EN GLAZEN, which translates into ‘People who are silly and mad write their names on doors and windows’.

My sister gave me the book recently.  She’s going through a phase where she wants to rid herself of all negative energy and the words on the front cover of this book exude just that, at least they do for her. 

For me these words are intriguing and given I do not have many examples of my father’s handwriting, they’re a treasure.  However much I might disagree with the sentiment they express. 

When I was little I wondered what these words could mean.  How could it be such a stupid thing to write your name down on the front of your books?  Or maybe my father was having a go at those who write their names on trees and walls and fences, graffiti artists and the like. 

They do more than inscribe their names, but certainly the mark or tag of a graffiti artist seems to be an important part of their work.

 I still write my name in the front of my books, mostly as a territorial thing.  I claim this book as my own.  Not that it helps the book to stay in my possession. I am an inveterate book lender and even though I once tried to keep a list of all books borrowed out to others so that I might remind the borrowers in the fullness of time they have my book, I forget to fill in the list.  It’s incomplete and then I forget where I put it. 

So my books with my silly name in the front cover are scattered all over in other people’s libraries. 

As long as they’re loved, I say. 

I made my annual pilgrimage to the Freud conference yesterday.  The two main speakers from Germany spoke about fundamentalism, fanaticism and religion to a large audience. 

The topic was daunting, not least because during the introductions the conference organiser told us that ‘for reasons of security for this particular conference’ they would lock the doors during sessions and a body guard would protect the premises at all times. 

She told us this in case we decided to go outside during the breaks.  She told us this in order to remind us that should we go outside during one of the breaks we should return at least ten minutes before the proceedings resume so that we are not locked out.

Moreover, the conference organiser told us to keep our nametag on at all times. 
‘If the guard sees you without your nametag, you will be escorted from the building’.
I call this overkill.
Some said it was necessary.  Maybe it was.  A duty of care, one person told me during the break.  Maybe again it was, but it also created an aura of the enemy, the ‘other’, the one lurking outside who might at any moment enter with a machine gun or hand grenade to attack us in our seats or to take us hostage. 

And so we experienced the effects of terrorism first hand, albeit at a distance.  After all, terrorism is designed to terrify.

This contrasts with other injunctions from government spokespeople and the like who say, go about your business as usual and don’t be afraid.  Be alert, but unafraid.

The conference made me more afraid than I might otherwise have been but even though the threat of terrorism is real and there are good reasons for all of us to pay attention, the greatest fear I reckon lies in ourselves. 

Our own tendencies to look at life in terms of the black and the white, insiders and outsiders, clashes of identity.

During the breaks I managed to speak to many people, some old acquaintances, others new, but always I had the sense – as I so often have at conferences – that we are ships who pass in the night. 

Some of these people I saw last year at the Freud conference and I will see them again in a year at the next Freud conference. 

Conferences like this one that happen every year have the quality of Christmas family get togethers. 

Not everyone in the family comes, but there are enough of us who get together, along with a few extras, occasional friends or extended family members, to create a strange tension. 

It reminds me of the energy my sister talks about from the front cover of her book. 

The pride and prejudice of it all. 

I suspect my father’s words might reflect his own difficulties in acknowledging his identity.  He was proud of his name, the same name as that of his father, his father’s father, his father’s father’s father going back through the centuries. 

But he could not wear his name with the confidence he might have liked, given his decimation through war and family trauma, and so he could not tolerate the idea that his children should wear their own names with pride.  

Especially not his daughters.


Saturday, May 09, 2015

Nothing remarkable here.

At a dinner last night, one of our hosts began to talk about his memories from childhood. 

His was an English education, boarding school from the age of twelve, a life I have long wondered about, but then I asked his wife about her education and my curiosity tripped me up. 

What was it like for you as a child? I asked.  Too broad a question perhaps but her response was immediate.
‘I had an ordinary, a normal childhood, nothing remarkable there.’

My friend went on to say something about her mother as a divorcee and that this was not the thing in those days, but that was all.  

I sensed a trapdoor shut with the words, ‘Mine was an ordinary childhood’.

It puts me in mind of the times when my husband and I once interviewed would-be nannies for our children.  If any one of them uttered the words ‘I love children’ I struck them off my list.

I distrust such sentiments.  Who ‘loves’ children and who has an ordinary childhood? To me there is no such thing.

Childhood is that magical and terrifying place where life is its hardest, full of pitfalls, full of tricky and incomprehensible adults.  Full of the hypocrisy of life, when even if you can figure out something of what’s going on, the rest is still in darkness. 

To me there’s a hole in a narrative when someone reports on a happy childhood.  A happy childhood.  A normal childhood, an ordinary one.   There’s no such thing, I reckon, though of course there are degrees.

My mother spent our lives insisting that her childhood was happy. The oldest of seven children, the first girl with only one female rival, a sister, one of twins, six years younger, my mother was the apple of her father’s eye. 

She told us stories endlessly of how she lived in a two-storey house on the Marnixplein in Holland where even though it froze over in wintertime there were always canals and lakes on which to skate. 

I sensed my friend did not want to go into any details about her childhood, after all it was so normal, but something tells me there was much more to it.

Life doesn't begin in young adulthood when we step out into the world.  It begins the day we're born, and the richest moments occur in those extraordinary years before we reach what people call adulthood. 

Virginia Woolf talks about them as ‘moments of being’.  The moment when memories coalesce to form a crystal of images that can take narrative form and become something like the tip of an iceberg, underneath which the rest of our life’s memories form.

They point to something.  Even a statement as bland as ‘I had a normal childhood’, hints at its opposite. 

An ordinary childhood is a restricted childhood, one in which a child is discouraged from going deeply into whatever experience life might offer. 

I can see it in the form of one of my teachers, Miss Fitzgerald, a woman who kept on her coat during classes in the grade three classroom.  She spoke in a thick Scottish accent and had an aura that made her classes the best behaved in the school.  She gave us an ordinary education, one that refused to feed our curiosity and imaginations. 

An ordinary childhood is a repressed one. 

Last night at the dinner, for a moment I felt like a poor relative.  My friends come from other parts of the world, from places far afield and perhaps some of my interminable cultural cringe rose to the surface when I thought once more of the lack of glamour of my own Australian education.

But then I have to check myself. 

We’ve all of us – those lucky enough or unlucky, as the case may be, to have had an  education – experienced something of the Mrs Fitzgerald’s of this world, the strict and sour women who control their classes by instilling fear. 

And whenever it happens, there’s still a story to tell. 

There is no such thing as an ordinary childhood. 

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Memory's thump

After she died, my mother left each of her children $8154.94 as their inheritance.  She had wanted to leave $10,000.00 each out of the proceeds of her rooms at the retirement village where she had spent her last decade, but the way these things go, costs and disbursements whittled some away. 

Throughout her life my mother was determined to give each of her children something of significance, and each must have an equal share. 

Ironically, what she leaves can never be equal

For some of us, $8000.00 plus is a significant sum, for others it’s a trifle.  For some it can go into unpaid debts, for others it becomes part of their inheritance to their own children, administered early.

They will give it away.

After my husband’s father died and left a small but more significant inheritance size-wise, he wanted to buy something of substance as a reminder of his father: a timeless piece of furniture that might stand up against time. 

I have not been able to think of anything to honour the memory of my mother other than through words on the page.

One of my brothers has been writing his ‘chronicles’ about his life, which he had wanted to include in the family archive, but has since withdrawn because some family members objected to certain of his statements. 

The response to his writing, which he initially spread far and wide among our extended family, was a bit like my mother’s inheritance.  Some responded loudly – it meant a great deal to them.  Others did not react at all, or at least not in company.

Last night, I read the second section of my brother’s chronicles in which he addresses some of the contentious areas where people have challenged his view of what really happened in our family and I wonder yet again about the nature of fact and of fiction. 

The ways in which one person’s story can seem so very different from that of a sibling, when both occupied the same space in childhood, when both shared the same parents. 

But in many ways, my brother’s parents were not my parents.  All nine of us have different parents, given that our parents – despite our mother’s best intentions to treat us all equally – behaved differently with each one of us. 

My father prized the boys above the girls; at least as far as academic achievement was concerned.  Girls were good for housework and sexual favours. 

My mother, on the other hand, preferred her sons.  Especially, the first and last-born, though the first might say that our mother preferred the second born son. 

These distinctions put differential pressures on each of us as girls and as boys. 

Years ago, Helen Garner wrote a story about her sisters for an anthology on sisters in which she gave her sisters names based on chronology, second sister, third sister etc.  I have a similar impulse in relation to writing about my brothers, given there are five of them, and each is unique. 

Here, too, I try to protect their identities in order to make a point about family experience, but this emphasis on family chronology can make for dull storytelling, so the critic in my head pulls me up and says ‘fictionsalise’.

Does it matter that my brother writes in blunt words, that my father penetrated my sister and raped her on a number of occasions, both for its factual nature and that the statement seems to take it further than my understanding of events. 

Did my father actually penetrate my sister? 

Does degree matter?  My father penetrated my sister’s mind.  He penetrated mine.  He penetrated all our minds but in different ways. 

See these words on the page.  See how they disturb, even as I put them down. 

See how much the reader wants to say,
‘No, dont write that’. 

Don’t say that.  Don’t speak of these events, they are too awful to consider.

Embellish them in a story.  Give the reader some space in which to imagine.  Don’t leave it too open-ended. 

My brother writes about his own memory of seeing my father go into my sister’s bedroom late at night.  Sometimes my father was naked.

This one hits me with a thump.

My brother as witness and given that he himself did not go into my sister’s bedroom, given he did not watch my father with my sister, but could only imagine it, he may have taken his memories to this extreme.

When we witness events, we take in certain aspects of that event and our memory and imagination then kicks in and rearranges the images over time. 

When I read about my brother’s memory it puzzles me.  Only in so far as I do not remember my father walking naked through the house until I was in my teens, by which time this brother had left home. 

But when this brother still lived at home, it is possible that he saw my father in ways I did not.

Does it matter, the truthfulness of all this, of who saw what, of who did what to whom? 

I suspect it does.  But when it comes to sexual abuse, the facts become murky, simply through the overload of sensations that accompany our understanding.

When I read about the three year old boy who went missingfrom his home on the mid-north coast of NSW several months ago and of how police later recruited the aid of Interpol to look out for a paedophile ring, I cannot get it out of my mind: the sight of this little boy in the grip of a group of paedophiles. 

In my imagination, they are a blurry group of dark clothed men standing in a ring around this small boy, preying on his body as if they are dogs fighting over a bone.

This is as much as my imagination can bear before I want to snap it shut.  Stop the images.  They are too unimaginable.

My mother was a person who could not bear to see what was going on around her, under her own roof. 

She could not contemplate what was happening to her daughters, most particularly her oldest, even though she tells the story of finding my father at my sister’s bedside and of telling him if she ever saw him doing this again she would kill him. 

She thought that was enough to stop him.

It was not enough.

My father continued to visit my sister in the night and my mother continued not to see, until it was too late. 

Even now in my family, and in the community at large, it is hard to want to see these things. 

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I write about them.  I pick at them like an old sore, and there are some who say, stop it, get over it.  It’s done now.  Get on with your life. 

There are some who might put our mother’s inheritance into the bank – just a few extra dollars and nothing of any substance – and there are others who might like to make the most of our mother’s inheritance, some who might want to use some of the talent she passed onto her children, both for observation and her ability to write, but also to fight against this tendency of hers to turn a blind eye.  

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Don't go

‘You’re on track,’ the gym instructor said to me last week, little knowing that I had dragged myself in and that from time to time I kept telling myself, I’d like to give up on this regime of twice weekly weight lifting. 

But I don’t. 

I must do this till the end of my life or at least until my body says, no more.  I can hardly bear the thought.  Endless hours at the gym trying to stop my body from its inevitable decline. 

I suppose it offers borrowed time. 

It means I feel less shaky on my legs.  It means I can go longer distances, walk further and not feel the trembles every time I get above twenty steps. 

It means I’m still in the land of the living.

Even so, I long to rid myself of this suitcase body of mine and stretch to greater heights. 

There’s still a red scar where my wound happened over a month ago now. It took so long to heal.  I measured the whole of my time away in Edinburgh by the pain in my finger.  It ached more in the cold and every day I kept applying the special plastic bandage the doctor had ordered for me.  This bandage allowed the right amount of moisture through, air and whatever else is needed for healing.  
And now I can’t go to the gym today because it’s Anzac day.  A reprieve and an annoyance. 

It’s hard enough to motivate myself but when the government offers a disincentive in the form of a public holiday where everything is meant to close down – not that it does – then I have to find the motivation tomorrow or the next day. 

And all of this in honour of a battle that was anything but a victory and even if it was, should we be happy about celebrating it?

Scenes from my father’s war in Europe: 

Another of my daughters is going away soon, overseas, this time for an indefinite period, and this time to Japan. 

I have to choke back the lump in my throat that stops me from saying, ‘Don’t go’.  I have to encourage her at every turn. 

It’s a good thing to go away to explore new places, new cultures, new lives, but all the time the tug of home reminds me of why I hate to travel.  Why I hate to stray too far from home. 

My mother once told the story of how in her first few weeks in Melbourne when she lived with her husband and five children in a converted chook shed, she struggled to adjust to this new place so far from Holland. 

One day as she swept the kitchen floor of the bungalow, through the open door, she noticed the parish priest drive by in his car.  She saw him and waved, but he did not see her. 

At that moment a rush of pain ran through her body. 

Back home in Haarlem, the parish priest knew her well.  Back home in Haarlem, he would not drive by and ignore her.  He would stop and visit for morning coffee after Mass. 

Back home my mother was someone.  Here in Australia she was a no one.
At times my mother shifted from this sense of not being wanted or known into deriding the rest.  This country, these people, these Australians, they lack culture. 

They have no art, no history, no ancient buildings.  They do not know about fine food, and they do not discuss important ideas.  They are ignorant and boorish and at parties the men stand at one end of the room and drink beer together while the women huddle at the other end or in the kitchen over cups of tea. 

I tried then to imagine what the word ‘culture’ meant. 

If Europeans possessed culture, then could culture have something to do with the way the men on building sites – the men who to me looked to be mainly European, Italians, Poles, foreigners – behaved?   

These men worked hard and smoked cigarettes.  They wolf whistled whenever a young woman walked past. 

Was this culture?  Was this what my mother longed for, to be recognised, to be wanted? 

The wolf whistles were meant to be complimentary, or were they?

 By the time I reached adolescence and these workers whistled at me, I felt the conflict of pleasure at being noticed with a wish to be hidden and left alone. 

It felt as if I was taken over in some way, but this had to be good I told myself.  This was a sign of approval.  This meant I was desirable.

Yet if these men actually talked to me or knew me in any way, then they would change their minds.  They would see how I was awkward and could not string words together.  They would see the state of my teeth and recoil. 

Or in turn, I might recoil at the sight of their arm muscles, the clumsiness of their broken English or the smell of BO that ran off their bodies. 

Was this culture? 

And now when I am beyond the wolf whistles of the past, when I see them all so differently, when I reflect on such attitudes as patronising, objectifying and a thinly disguised sign of contempt for women, I’m troubled by my childhood self. 

The way I saw things then. 

These old views clash with what I see around me now. 

And once when I was young I might have thought I could continue to get away without exercise – my body, a suitcase rigid and inert, a mere carry all. 

My mind the only thing to matter once I gave up on my soul. 

But I still despise war, not only for those of us who suffer its consequences but most of all for those who must live through it and if they’re lucky enough to survive must live with the consequences of what they have seen, done, and heard.

How can we fight against that?

Going to the gym will only take a person so far.