Saturday, August 27, 2011

I haven't read the book, but in my opinion, it's not worth reading.

It’s within a week of a year since I broke my leg. At the time recovering from this break seemed interminable. Eight weeks of my life weighed down with a cast from ankle to knee and now I can scarcely even remember that it happened. I no longer even notice the twinges that beset me earlier this year when I was still recovering.

My broken leg has healed and now all I have is the memory and the cast which I could not bring myself to chuck out. For one thing it cost over $900.00 – would you believe? – and for another, it seems sacrilegious to chuck it out. But it’s of no use and when I dragged it out the other day to show my brother-in-law who lives interstate and missed out on the drama of my broken leg, I realised that it could not serve as the basis of any work of art – an earlier fantasy of mine.

The cast was custom made to fit my leg. It has no place in my life anymore, not unless I were to break my leg again in the same place, and that is unlikely. In the next clean up, which I plan to go through over the Christmas holidays I may bite the bullet and consign it to the tip.

I have a chapter in my thesis in which I discuss the furore that erupted over Ann Patchett’s book, Truth and Beauty. The book is her memorial, you might say, to her friend Lucy Grealy, author of the renowned Autobiography of a Face. Grealy died in her early forties of a suspected heroin overdose.

To me both books are beautifully written and well worth reading, but the reason I focus on them in my thesis has more to do with the audience response to these books, particularly as I see them played out within the blogosphere.

There is a post dedicated to discussions of a letter that Suellen Grealy, Lucy’s older sister, wrote to The Guardian about Patchett’s book.

Suellen believes that Ann Patchett has ‘hijacked’ her family’s grief by writing about her younger sister and to some extent about the Grealy family as she has. Mind you, there is not much about Lucy Grealy’s family in Patchett’s book as far as I can see. The book is more about Lucy herself and her relationship with Ann Patchett.

The thing that intrigues me is the degree to which this book has inspired a line of hate mail directed against Patchett for daring to violate the Grealy family’s right to its private grief, or at least for daring to present a different image of Lucy Grealy to the one she presented in her autobiography.

I’m interested in notions of grief, particularly in so far as they relate to issues of privacy and the public sphere. I understand Ann Patchett’s book to be in part her attempt to come to terms with the loss of her beloved friend and a commemoration of their friendship, but also as an expression of, or a space in which to explore, some of Patchett’s anger with her friend for perhaps not making a better fist of things.

Having said that, I don’t sense that Ann Patchett lacks in empathy for her friend, Lucy, whose life sounds as though it was horrendous. There’s something though in the way we live our lives, the uses to which we put our lives, especially when those lives are described in public as in the writing of these two books that then invite others to come along and judge those lives, for good or for ill.

To me there’s a confusion between the content of the writing, the writing itself and the real lives of the people, either those who write or those written about.

In one of the comments on this blog discussing Suellen’s letter of protest, Jack Grealy, a nephew, writes a comment in which he complains about what he considers to be one blog commenter’s attack on his aunt, Suellen. 'She’s my aunt,' he seems to say. 'You can’t talk about her like that.'

But in the public sphere, in the blog world, Suellen Grealy is not simply Jack Grealy’s aunt, she has become a commodity of sorts, a character in a novel.

She has written about her perceptions in her letter to The Guardian and has thereby thrown herself into the mix, her sister Lucy’s book about her own life, and Ann Patchett’s response to that life and in so doing, she has become a source of interest and curiosity for readers throughout the blogosphere. Therefore another commenter, tells Jack Grealy that he’s out of line.

Although Patchett’s book came out in 2004, and Grealy’s ten years earlier, comments still arrive at the blogsite that posted Suellen’s letter from The Guardian.

Lucy is dead, Ann Patchett has gone on to write several more successful novels, and heaven knows what Suellen is up to these days, but the saga continues.

I find extraordinary the extent to which people feel free to comment on this fracas, including those who admit to not having read either book.

They wade in on the fight as if a mob is gathering on the street and people are baying for someone’s blood – any one’s blood it seems, though not Lucy Grealy’s. She’s seen as the true victim, but her friend, Ann Patchett, is fair game for daring to write about Lucy as she has done, or likewise Lucy’s sister, Suellen, for daring to take Patchett to task.

I suppose literary skirmishes are not uncommon. They bring out the worst and the best in us. It is for this reason, too, I think there is some merit to the notion that even the best of writing can disturb and evoke a hostile reader response.

What is it that happens to us when we read? Is there some sense that when we take in the words off the page they become our own and therefore we have the right to judge, not only the standard of the writing, but also the content. It is as if we become both judge and jury, not only of the writer but also of those who are written about.

It is a powerful phenomenon and it’s one reason why I remind myself constantly that writing is a dangerous business. There is a world of potential critics out there ready to berate you for writing things they may not have read, or they may not want to read, or see, or hear, or remember, or for writing in such a way as to stir up emotions in readers for which they have no other outlet than rage directed at the writer, who is only the messenger after all.

Somehow unlike the cast from my broken leg, certain published writings can never be consigned to the tip. They go on being worn, even after the leg has healed.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

An unfaithful blogger

Force of habit and I flick on the central heating even when it’s no longer necessary, Not today at least, not today when the temperature will reach 19 degrees C, if the pundits are correct, and the sun shines brightly.

Today I will write to time. I have almost no time spare. Job after job presents itself to me but I must get on and make the most of it and still find time for writing, for practice, which in some ways is how I view my blog.

I write with the greatest energy first thing in the morning. As the day progresses my energy fades. Is this the case for you?

Once when I was younger I imagined myself to be a writer who pounded the key board into the wee hours of the morning but not today. Today I can only vegetate late at night in front of a BBC DVD or some such other entertainment, my escape from the demands and excesses of my life.

To avoid the spectre of words only, I include here a picture of a much younger self, one who never dreamed of being in charge of a computer.

My younger self here used to think that I'd like to be dead by the time I hit sixty. No more ghastly old age for me, I thought then. I've since changed my mind. Charging up to sixty, these days I think of this age as still young enough to enjoy.

One of my daughters talked to me last night about my blog. I trembled inside. Daughters can be critical about such things. She’d been reading my blog lately, she said and she was amazed at some of the comments, the things that people focussed on in their comments.

She did not complain about my posts. This daughter has a fine and logical mind. She would probably look for the central theme or argument in whatever I have written and probably want to concentrate on that, whereas bloggers, she observes, myself included, often get distracted by what to her seems like a sort of trivial digression from the piece or something to the side.

I do it myself, whatever reverberates for me, I tend to respond to something small that may not relate to the central point of the post.

My daughter is impressed, she says, by the fact that I try to respond to everyone’s comments however slight. I’m not so impressed myself. In fact, lately I fear I’ve been a faithless blogger. I have managed a post once a week and I have managed to respond to comments but beyond that I have scarcely been out visiting in weeks.

This appals me. My inner critic says it’s not good enough. I take the view that if you enjoy people’s visits you must reciprocate and visit in turn. But I have become such a home body of late, not quite a recluse but when another daughter asked me if I could drop her off to Melbourne university today for its open day at 10 in the morning, my heart shuddered.

She had planned to take the train. She ought to take the train, but if I drive her - she’s not yet in possession of a drivers’ licence herself yet, not yet eighteen, nor has she enough practice hours clocked on – then she will have extra time to get all the millions of things she needs to get done, including her sleep.

So of course I will oblige, for which reason I am writing here to time, and trying at the same time to apologise to one and all for my slackness of late in not visiting as often as I would have liked.

My homebody tendencies are related to some extent to the fact that I’m on the final run with my thesis. I have an end date, a date planned for submission, 28 October, some seven or so weeks away and I have so much to do to get the thing into shape.

At times when I would normally go out to visit blog friends, I am frantic trying to correct typos, restructure whole chapters or just generally get on the defensive.

One of my supervisors reckons now is the time to get on the defensive. To cover every little possibility where an unknown examiner might quibble with what I have to say.

Not only do I have to clarify my argument, I must also say something about what might be obvious to someone else but is not so to me, namely why I have chosen NOT to explore so and so’s ideas in this area or why I have elected to follow the course I have chosen.

It’s hideous stuff, not my style at all, but it’s what academics must do, I gather. Fortunately, I have no intention or need to become an academic. I enjoy dabbling in academia but I am no where near rigorous enough. Besides I hate intellectual arguing. I prefer to speculate, to play around with thoughts, to explore foreign territories or to revisit the familiar but I have no wish to hammer home a point anywhere.

My supervisor, one of them, at least – I’m lucky, I have two of the best – also remarks on how I write with conviction when it comes to the sections on infant development and the like, areas in which she feels more cynical, whereas when I write about the writings of someone like Helen Garner, or the Brett sisters, Doris and Lily or Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy, all writers whose work I explore to some extent in my thesis, I am full of words like ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybe’. In other words, she says, I write speculatively.

I suspect this will not do. But I cannot write with any confidence – even including about a text – in relation to another person unless they tell me clearly what they think, and even then, I cannot be confident that what I have heard is accurate. I cannot be sure of anything.

But developmental theory, which I suppose after all these years of practising, sits in my blood and bones in a way that offers me confidence, whereas to someone else it might all sound speculative and foreign.

I do not think these things in absolutes, but more intuitively. I suppose that applies to anything I read. If it makes sense and fits in somehow with my world view and experience I’m likely to take it on board, but not as gospel truth, not any more.

No more gospel truths for me, everything in moderation, with a grain of salt as they say, everything held with conviction at times, but also held lightly.

Life’s too short to get into arguments, except perhaps when it involves life or death. And I’m not talking pro or anti abortion and such like here. I’m talking love and hate. Read that as you will.

My time is up.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Is this really me?

Last night I trawled through photos which one of my brothers has collected onto a CD, photos that cover the span of my mother’s life from her birth in 1919 until she turned eighty five.

I went back to 1952 in search of photos that mark my birth. There is one photo underneath which my older sister has written my name. I recognise my sister’s handwriting, but I fear she has it wrong.

Is this really me, in the first with my mother,in the second with my older sister and brother, or is it another brother, who was born some seventeen months earlier? He and I were the first two of our parents’ children born in Australia. My mother has described this brother's birth as difficult. The hospital was crowded and they left my mother outside on the veranda. When she felt the need to bear down no one heard her cries for help. Not until he was nearly there.

Several years ago when I was raging against my mother and reluctant to acknowledge our connection, I still wanted to know something about my birth, so I disguised my interest under a curiosity about what all her births were like and my mother obliged me by writing up her memories of each one of our births.

Given there are nine of us my mother's memories must become confused and conflated, but mine she remembers as a forceps delivery.

I check my forehead for bumps, for signs of the imprint of those metal clamps on my head. Forced into the world, dragged into life. I want some evidence of what it was like and can find none.

When you have spent several years in analysis probing the deepest recesses of your mind you become acquainted with the notion of your internal baby. Still I look for external evidence and there is almost none. It annoys me that I cannot lay claim to this image with any certainty. I want to look into the eyes of my baby self and see myself there, but I cannot. I can only imagine and even then I may be looking into my baby brother’s eyes.

On the other hand there are numerous images available from my life as a ten year old, twelve year old and fourteen year old. These I recognise as me, though you may not.

I thought I was ugly as a child. I look now and think not so, not so ugly at all. Why then did I feel I was ugly. Was it simply by virtue of contrasting myself to my two younger sisters who were always considered the pretty ones? Or was it something else, some sense that the way I felt inside, all the badness I carried with me in those days should be translated directly onto my face, to turn it ugly overnight?

I thought of myself then as like a gargoyle, those ugly creatures that clung to the edges of roof tops in the ornate houses that surrounded the streets where we lived.

I am about to start work on a paper about autobiography as fiction or in excess of fiction. What is your take on this? When I write about myself as in autobiographical practice is it necessarily fictional to some degree or is it necessarily the true story of my life?

Why do I even bother to ask the question? We all know the answer. It’s one of those horrible endless questions some of us agonise over. Like the nature/nurture argument some of us battled over at university: Is it your genetic make up and hereditary or is your environment, your education and upbringing that determines how you turn out?

Why do we get into such artificial polarised debates? Of course, the answer is neither one nor the other. Of course, the answer is both and more besides, but our perspective affects the degree to which we might favour one or the other.

In the argument over autobiography as fact or fiction, I tend more towards the fictional side of things, even as I use the stuff of my life as it ‘really ‘ happened in my memory as my building blocks.

The way I recast the story of my life, the way I re-remember events, even as many of these events can be corroborated by others, including my siblings, I still do not regard them as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I’m comfortable with a certain level of truth in fiction, emotional truth I call it, universal truths that lie in the stories we tell one another about our lives. These are distinct from outright lies and fabrications, falsehoods and distortions. I’m not interested in those, but more often than not such falsifications can be seen through. At least I hope they can be seen through.

Maybe authenticity is a better word. Authentic accounts of lives lived rooted in the past but brought into the present in our fictional interpretations of our memories. The blogosphere is full of it.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Falling in love with priests

‘Down down down,’ the headlines read.
‘The newspapers shit me,’ I say to my husband after he has peeled off the gladwrap that protects said newspaper from the rain.
‘It’s starting to shit everyone, I think,’ he says and walks back to the bedroom to read the details.

I cannot be bothered with the details. All this doom and gloom and soon we will be ruined. Endless talk of disaster in the economy. The newspapers perpetuate it and feed on it and feed it back to us as if to guarantee a spirit of hopelessness and despair that might or might not sell newspapers.

It is easy to get caught up in the generalised anxiety but for a long time I have told myself it is better to worry – if indeed I must worry – about things that I can improve or at least have some impact on. I can do nothing about the Dow Jones Index.

I am now more than half way through the Ballykissangel series and my heart has gone out of it.

Assumpta Fitzgerald is dead and her would be lover the priest, Peter Clifford, has disappeared in his grief.

The scriptwriters decided to electrocute Assumpta just at the point where she and Peter Clifford are ready to acknowledge their shared love for one another, just at the point where a romance might be possible, between Assumpta, a married woman, and Peter, a Catholic priest.

What of it? All these transgressions then tragedy strikes.

I had to keep telling myself after the end of the third series that this is just a story. There is no actual Assumpta Fitzgerald. Even so I kept wanting to bring her back to life.

I Googled the actor who plays the part and reading about the real life Dervla Kirwan helped ameliorate some of the pain.

I had a similar experience reading AS Byatt’s Still Life. Byatt also kills off one of her central characters, a young woman who has not long earlier give birth to her first daughter. Byatt also destroys her character’s life through electrocution. I could not bear it any more than I could bear the pain of Assumpta’s accidental death by electrocution and the town’s grief, but most of all, I could not bear Peter Clifford’s grief.

And then I read through Google that the man who plays Peter Clifford, an English actor Stephen Tomkinson, was once engaged to the woman who plays Assumpta, Dervla Kirwan.

Maybe sparks flew while they were filming. It seems to happen: actors who play lovers on the screen become real life lovers, at least for a while. Dervla Kirwan married someone else in the end as did Tomkinson.

I find this double identity difficult to deal with. I so want to lose myself in the story as if it is real. The knowledge that a certain actor plays the part spoils the illusion.

Maybe it’s my way of escaping from the ‘Down down down’ of the Dow Jones when I enter whole other worlds in which I have no care and no responsibility.

And then I find an entire blog dedicated to Assumpta Fitzgerald. An Australian, I might add, named Sarah Turner has written about Assumpta Fitzgerald almost as if she were real, and she is real in our imaginations.

If you’re interested she tells the story. And so I’m cleary not the only one hooked into this story.

My sisters and I have a long history of falling in love with priests. You could call it Oedipal if you like. Attraction to the unattainable one. The forbidden one.

The priests, the young priests at least, the ones straight out of the seminary exuded an innocence and charm that set my heart racing as a young adolescent.

The three of us, my older sister and my younger sister competed for their affections or so it seemed to me. My older sister had the best chance with them. She was the oldest and therefore most endowed with womanly attributes, although my younger sister worked hard to be attractive – and she was – she remained too youthful I imagine to stir the hearts of the local curates, but my older sister drew him in.

This was in the days when we lived in Cheltenham and attended Our Lady of the Assumption. The then curate came from a large family of boys, several of whom were significant in public life, one a renowned barrister, another a journalist and this youngest was the priest.

But he was a larrikin. I sensed it always and he flirted with the young girls from the YCW. In the end he married one of them, but not before he enchanted my older sister who at that time was also being courted by the priest from our old parish, the one we called Father Willie. He was Irish, like Father Clifford.

I am struck by my deep desire for Assumpta Fitzgerald and Peter Clifford to get together even as I know such a liaison would most likely be doomed to failure, though not necessarily.

There have been successful marriages between ex priests and women over the years. I think of Greg Dening who married out of the priesthood, but I also think of my oldest brother, admittedly only in training to be a priest but some way down the track when he met and married his first wife. Their marriage lasted only a year.

I suspect my brother stayed priest-like in his manners. The story goes he continued to welcome homeless and desperate people into their home and his new wife could not take it any more.

And then there is my sister who married a priest. Her marriage lasted the length of five children but in the end he strayed off with another parishioner. My sister has stayed faithful to the church in a manner of speaking. My brother I believe has not.

Before they married, my once brother in law needed to get a dispensation from Rome and to do so he was told to think long and hard about his calling and his behaviour. By then my sister was pregnant with their first child, even as her husband to be, fresh out of the seminary and newly ordained, continued to say Mass and hear confessions.

My sister went into labour with toxaemia at seven months and lost the first baby, which my mother saw as a sign from God that my sister and the priest should desist, but it did not stop them.

My sister was again pregnant within a year and all this before any dispensation had been granted. All this in the days when single motherhood especially within the Catholic church was frowned upon.

And pregnancy to a priest, well …