‘You gave up the church for psychoanalysis,’ my mother says, during one of our many arguments about my leaving the church. ‘It’s just another form of religion but it has no moral core.’ She points her finger at me and waggles it. ‘And that fellow who started it all. Well, what can I say?’
My mother first warned me against Freud when I was at university doing an Arts degree and majoring in psychology.
‘He had cancer of the jaw.’
‘From smoking,’ I said.
‘No’, she told me, ‘much worse.’ Never once did she spell out what worse was. I knew she was hinting at sexual peculiarities and perversion. Little did my mother know, I gave up the church long before I began my analysis.
I was nineteen years old, home alone, cramming for my first year exams. My philosophy lecturer had telephoned to tell me I’d failed the previous examination because I didn’t answer the question. It was on the issue of ethics. One of those exams where you’re told the question beforehand and sit for an hour under exam conditions to write the answer. I thought I had it all worked out, even rote learned my response. It was the first time I’d failed anything, apart from mental arithmetic in grade six, and that didn’t count.
If I tried hard in the next exam, my lecturer told me, I could still pass.
On the third day of swat vac, a friend telephoned.
‘Come down to my place,’ he said. My friend was a failed dietetics student who worked in a city bookshop where we met. We worked together during the university holidays. He was downstairs in general fiction while I worked upstairs with the other casuals flogging second-hand textbooks.
‘It’s a glorious day,’ he said. ‘We can spend it together here.’
‘But I’ve got to study.’
‘One day off can’t hurt.’
I walked to the train station in the crisp spring light. The train rattled its way to Edithvale. I could see the bay from my window, a strip of blue and silver. Guilt hung heavily but I shrugged it off.
My friend lived with his parents in a pale green weatherboard halfway down a street that ran off the Nepean Highway. All the houses in the street looked the same. Long concrete driveways down one side, and in front, neat lawns of cropped couch grass, bordered by hydrangeas and ti-tree.
Inside, three porcelain ducks flew up one wall and a couple of round, stand-alone tables served as ashtrays, beside two his and hers Jason recliners that were propped in front of the television. The place reeked of stale cigarettes. His mother worked as a supervisor in the delicatessen at Safeway. His father, a returned soldier who drank too much beer and spent most of his time at the RSL, grew orchids in a hot house attached to the back.
My friend had taken the day off work while his parents were away. He used to bet on the horses and by the time I arrived, the second race at Sandown had already run. I could hear the drone of the race caller through the open window when I pressed the doorbell.
Although it was not a hot day, he answered the door in his shorts with no shirt. He was stocky, with a round face and a delicious cherubic smile. His boyishness belied the fact that he was several years older than me. I melted at the sight of him.
‘I’ve won on two races,’ he said, as he ushered me down the hallway, ‘and I’m looking for a third.’
He led me to his bedroom, pulled off his shorts and climbed into bed. I’d never seen a man naked before; I had to look away. I sat on the bed’s edge, my hands in my lap and eyed my sandals.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘ get in.’
‘I don’t think I should.’
He’d kissed me before, once or twice. He’d held my hand when he took me to the Spring Racing Carnival at Caulfield. I’d argued with my mother when he first asked me out. He’d wanted to take me to Fellini’s Satyricon.
‘You can’t see a film like that,’ my mother said.
‘But he’s going with a group of friends specifically to see that very film. I can’t say no.’
‘If you can’t say no now, when will you ever be able to?’
I went to the film.
It was a clumsy seduction in a tight single bed. More than once I hit my head on the bedstead above. It served as a bookshelf and held Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and a book on chess. My friend stopped briefly to listen to the results of the third race and crowed when his horse won again. Then he turned off the radio.
Although God came into my mind, He didn’t stay for long. I’d learned early not to touch myself or let anyone else touch me for that matter. I had two holes below, or so I chose to believe, one for peeing, one for shitting, no more, no less. I was content with that. Then one day my sister told me about the third hole and its function, the making of babies. She didn’t mention pleasure.
I hadn’t felt any.
There was a line of blood on the sheet when it was over. My friend stripped the bed and threw the sheet into the washing machine then offered me a cup of tea.
The next Sunday, my mother and I sat in the front pew of the Church of Mary Immaculate. Head bowed, I considered the possibility of taking communion. I was in a state of mortal sin, for the first time in my life. Any guilt I felt was outweighed by the pleasure of knowing I was now a woman.
As much as I feared committing a sacrilege, I feared my mother more. I lined up alongside her as the priest in white and gold tipped the host onto outstretched tongues. I was convinced at the instant of contact between my tongue and the host I would shrivel up in a burst of flame. When nothing happened, no heavenly voice spoke and my mother failed to notice the telltale blush on my cheeks, I decided it was all a hoax. Same as when I was ten years old and they abolished the ban on eating meat on Fridays and stopped requiring three hours of fasting before communion. How could it be, I pondered, that such well-established rules, sanctified by the Pope in Rome, could be so readily dropped?
I had wrestled with impure thoughts before. It was never enough simply to admit to them. In the dark of the confessional my cheeks burned whenever I tried. The priest always wanted more detail and I could never find the words. I gave up trying.
A month later my friend took a job in the pub at Tocumwal and I never saw him again.
Ten years after that seduction, I entered analysis. The consulting room was full of the scent of aromatic oil and Christmas lilies. There was always a bunch of fresh flowers. It reminded me of a church. My analyst sat still and silent in her high-backed chair.
When I was little, I saw a nun eating spaghetti. I had knocked politely on the staff room door to leave a message for one of the teachers. Through the corner of my eye I saw her, Sister Perpetua eating tinned spaghetti. She forked the soft strands into her mouth. Until that very moment I thought nuns did not eat nor did they use the toilet. Under their habits I imagined clockwork bodies, fuelled by love of God.
Although she had a toilet in the back of her garden specifically for the benefit of her patients, I refused to use it. My analyst lived some distance from my house and everyday I visited her, I allowed enough time to stop at the shopping centre near her consulting room to relieve myself. I wanted to be nun-like too.
I visited my analyst five times a week. She lived in a double storey weatherboard perched on top of a hill three houses from the beach. Her consulting room stood beside the house, a separate apartment with high windows shielded by trees. Her sloping garden was carefully tended, in some places even restrained with neat beds and close-cropped bushes. Freesias and jonquils fought for space in wild clumps across her lawn. Elsewhere, like her, my analyst’s garden could surprise me. It was wild and spontaneous like the crooked arms of the ti-tree and geraniums that entwined along her rocky front wall.
I spoke to my analyst from the couch and rarely looked directly at her. Whenever I arrived at her consulting room, I kept my eyes to the ground as she ushered me in, to avoid her gaze, but I took note of her shoes. They were brightly coloured to match her clothes.
My analyst’s couch was like a bed, a single bed with a teal blue cover. Lying there flat on my back with my eyes closed, I remembered the title of a book I’d read about an old woman’s last years confined to bed in a nursing home, This Bed My Centre. My analyst’s couch became my centre. Unlike the priest in the confessional whose interest felt prurient, my analyst’s interest was genuine. I spoke; she listened. She spoke and I listened and we learned from one another.
The last time I saw her, she took my hand when we came to say goodbye. Before then we had only exchanged words. Her own hands were large and tanned. On her right fourth finger she wore a silver ring. It held an oval stone, a lapis lazuli that matched the blue of the sea that rolled unceasingly near her house.
When I walked away that final time, I took with me a sprig of geranium from her front fence. I planted it down the side of my house. It took root in that effortless way geraniums do. Within a year it flowered. Within another it was gone. The builders ripped it out to make room for their equipment during renovations.
After it was gone, nothing happened. The sky did not fall down. The earth did not crack. There was nothing left for me to take up now. No noble causes, no ideal ways of being, no firm system of beliefs. No way of escape.
‘I feel sorry for people like you,’ my mother says. ‘It’s all me, me, me. You just do as you please.’
I’ve learned to say nothing. I sit and wait till the storm has passed.
‘When you want to live without any discipline at all, you’re not growing but heading for disaster.’ My mother is older now, grey haired and shrunken. The book she is reading falls off her lap. She struggles to get to her feet and reaches for her walking stick.
My baby is asleep in her carry basket. She’s bundled up ready to leave.
‘And what about her?’ my mother says, pointing down at the baby’s head. ‘How will you teach her to lead a good life?’ She jabs her walking stick at the floor as she staggers behind me to the front door.
I click the carry basket into its position on the back seat of the car and kiss my mother goodbye.
‘Without some form of religion, there can be no moral sense,’ my mother says.
I wind down the window. ‘Don’t worry, Mum. I’m sure we’ll all be okay in the end.’
‘How can you, without God?’
I release the hand brake, indicate and pull out into the street. In the side rear view mirror I can see my mother, soon a dot on the horizon. She’s still waving, still hoping I suppose, if she prays hard enough, her daughter can be saved.
‘Religion, sex and Psychoanalysis’, Psychotherapy in Australia, Vol. 14, No. 3, May 2008