Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The nature of the crime

My oldest brother has written an extended essay, which he describes as a biography of our father, the details, the background to and arrival of our parents in Australia.

It is beautifully written and for me a pleasure to read however disturbing. The disturbing aspect for me relates as much to what my brother writes as to what he excludes.

I do not feel at liberty to write about this essay in detail yet, other than to reflect on Jim Murdoch’s comment that ‘the moment we start selecting we start fictionalising’. As well, I think of Paul Lisicky’s words, that for something ‘to shudder with mystery’ we need sometimes to hold something back. Lisicky uses the word ‘elision’.

My brother has a tendency to write about the ‘we’ of it all, referring to us, his brothers and sisters, as though he is a spokesperson for us all, a dangerous thing to do, given that as a group of individuals we are unlikely to see things the way he does.

But he is the first born and as the first born I suspect he claims that privilege, especially in so far as he is writing about the early years of his own life and the experience of our parents even before any of the rest of us were born.

He can claim that privilege here, but beyond it he sets himself up for challenge.

He reckons that the piece is not yet fully edited yet and for this reason wants me to keep it to myself, namely not to share this knowledge with my siblings, but I suspect that he is as fearful, as I am fearful, of how our siblings might react to any of our writing that purports to chronicle family history.

We see things so differently from one another. My oldest brother is big on ‘facts’ and big on genealogy, whereas I prefer the minute detail that emerges from my memories. My brother occasionally offers the detail of his own memories but mostly he prefers to rely on ‘written evidence’, which he considers to be much more reliable as evidence about what ‘really’ happened.

And so there are these letters that our grandparents wrote from prison in which they make no reference to their alleged crimes and write only about basic necessities or the hope that their children are well.

But I know the nature of the crime. I have the person cards that the historian and researcher, Barbara van Balen, gathered for me from the archives in Amsterdam. The person cards detail exact times of imprisonment and the charge. My brother does not want to talk about the charge, at least not yet.

He does not want to look too closely at the incest that preceded even his birth. Our grandparents were imprisoned around the time our parents were married and around the time this brother first entered the world.

What a legacy.

Here is a photo of my grandparents and father when he was a baby, well before it all happened.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A sock in the Vegemite jar

I woke this morning to an ear worm in my head, an ear worm from the German ohrwurm, a song that keeps on repeating itself however much I might try to stop the soundtrack.

It’s faded now but I dare not repeat the words of this song here for fear it will return like a recurring night mare. It’s relentless.

I had fully intended to go to an Al-Anon meeting this week, a meeting devised for the children, friends and partners of alcoholics, not to deal with any present concerns of mine but to deal with the past.

It might seem a strange thing to do but I have started to write about my childhood memories of going to an Alateen meeting with several of my sisters and brothers but the memories are so vague and disjointed that to write about them would essentially be to make them up.

Wouldn’t it be better, I thought, to see what such a meeting is like today?

When I mentioned this idea to my daughters they were horrified. How would the other people at the meeting feel? My daughters’ misgivings sowed seeds of doubt into my own head. I might be seen as an intruder.

‘What are you going to say to them,' one of my daughters asked, 'when it comes to telling your story? Are you going to say my father, who's been dead now for almost thirty years, was an alcoholic?’

I had thought I might say just that but I could not say I’ve come here today because I want to write about this experience, embedded in the experience of my past. So for the moment I have shelved the idea.

I have another idea for a piece of writing percolating in the back of my mind, but this one I shall keep to myself for a while, in part because I will only know about it more fully when I write it, and partly because, as with the Al-Anon plan I described above, I fear too early exposure will ruin it.

Does this happen to you? You have an idea in your mind. It feels full, rich and ready to be explored. You feel excited and effervescent with the energy of it but as soon as you start putting it into place it collapses like a house of cards.

I am riddled with the disappointment of such failed ideas, like dreams that are with me first thing in the morning still pulsing with energy only to be gone completely by mid morning.

I wish I could say the same for my ear worm. It’s still echoing there in the back of my head and I refuse to invite it into the forefront because it will once again persecute me and not let me be.

I had thought I could write the words of my earworm here and sort of evacuate them onto the page, but that might then send the ear worm off into your head, such things can be contagious, though only the words written on the page might not have enough of an effect to send them over to you. No, you’d need the music as well. So be grateful you’re spared.

I visited a blog for the first time yesterday that I think is worth a mention here. I don’t usually mention other people’s blogs - there are so many wonderful blogs out - there but this one caught my attention because of the visual element, and also because, as I said in one of my comments to Richard at Eyelight about his post Do I know you?, he has done something similar to what I believe Tracy Emin tried to do in her exhibit all those years ago with her My Bed.

The exhibit caused quite a stir at the time as I recall. How could anyone call an unmade bed art? Only when I read a more detailed account of Tracy Emin’s exhibit in a paper that likened autobiography to the ‘rumpled bed’ did I realise the extent of this work as a piece of self-portraiture and something many of us bloggers today attempt to do with our descriptions of the bric-a-brac of our lives, our small snap shots and vivid details both of the past and present that in themselves are like rumpled beds - if I dare to use the bed you sleep in as an analogy for a life. The entire bedroom is perhaps better.

The other day I found a photograph of my mother in her bedroom some fifty years ago. In it my mother poses in front of her Queen Anne mirror which has long fascinated me. Sometimes when my parents were away, I stood in front of this dresser and folded the mirrored arms around me. When I looked either to my right or to my left, I could see my image repeated again and again, ever decreasing in size, on and on into infinity. I could see my back and my front multiplied, and when I turned to the side, I could see my many profiles.

My mother in the photograph is one thing and I will write about that in the fullness of time but it was the rest of the room that soon caught my eye: the unmade bed, the clothes piled high on the chairs on either side, the cluttered bench below the mirror.

Not to confuse you, here's a picture of my mother in our lounge room. Note the amazing wall paper. My mother in her bedroom is not yet ready for publication.

I tend to divide houses into three types: those which could feature in a copy of Vogue Living, those which are cluttered and lived in to the full, and finally those that are squalid. I imagine there are multiple variations in between.

My house today is of the cluttered variety and I see and remember from this photo that so too was my mother’s house, the house of my childhood, which I thought then bordered on the squalid. It was probably not so.

My brother tells a story of visiting a friend when he was still in primacy school. My brother did not want to take off his shoes for fear they might stick to the floor, and later, at breakfast he found a sock in the vegemite jar.

The sock in the Vegemite jar has come to represent in my family the epitome of squalor. We joke about it when things are grim in terms of the untidiness of our household.

When we can find a sock in the vegemite jar, we will know that we have sunk to a new low.

There’s a cat in the back ground clamouring to be let inside my daughter's bedroom where she is now trying to sleep and therefore refuses to get out of bed to let the cat in. My daughter is happy for the cat to join her, but not to have to get out of bed to let her in, so I must do so.

Otherwise, the echo of the cat’s caterwauling might hit off another echo, the ever present earworm, and my head will be so full that I won’t be able to proof read the reformatted draft of my thesis, which is my next task for today.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My moment of glory

Yesterday, someone called Tracy Myers emailed to tell me that my blog has been selected as one of fifty personal memoir blogs that she rates among the best, at least for the moment.

Needless to say, I first checked the email out for spam. I should be more trustworthy perhaps but on the Internet we all know about those who play into our desire for recognition such that they flatter us mercilessly and offer all manner of reward just to get inside our computers in order to do untold damage there.

But it seems a genuine blog and I’ve since heard from others that it’s worth a visit, particularly if you’re interested in online memoir.

In honour of the occasion and to emphasize a point that I've been trying to make of late that autobiography also contains fictional elements, I shall post an image of myself:

The author without her head.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Have you ever been written about?

It’s the oddest sensation to find yourself in the pages of someone else’s story. My friend Carrie Tiffany – I mention her by name because she is a writer and has published a story and therefore presumably does not need to remain anonymous, as so many others do – has written a story in which she includes a brief description of a time we spent together several years ago now.

It’s a sympathetic portrait and there’s nothing in it to feel ashamed about. Carrie had mentioned it to me even as she was writing the story out of concern for my sensitivities. The vignette is merely a side tributary on the river of this wonderful story, which is well worth reading.

Many years ago when I discussed some of my concerns about writing about my siblings and how they might feel, my then writing teacher asked if I’d ever been written about. As if I could only judge the experience through my own experience.

It’s the oddest sensation. That’s me there on the page, the ‘Liz’ a peripheral character, who in Carrie's story spells her name with ‘z’ and not an ‘s’, that’s me, and yet it’s not me at all. I’ve been fictionalised.

It’s a me from the past, snap frozen in time, a tiny cameo of my husband and me, one winters day, I say winter because if it was written six months after my husband’s heart attack, then it must have been the wintertime, but it could just have easily happened in the summer.

I write about this experience here now because I am pondering the issue of finding yourself described in someone else’s pages and how unsettling this can be, however much we know it to be fictionalised. I’m also wondering about the degree to which all creative writing however much it is described as non-fiction and allegedly therefore based on the so-called truth is in fact a fiction.

The minor characters, Liz and Bob, in Carrie’s story are fictional characters however much based on real life characters. We know this and yet we tend to argue in polarities. Either it’s true – non-fiction, or it’s not – and therefore its fiction.

It can’t be both, and yet it is both.

And here I intersperse a photo break, a poorly captured image of my husband and me on our wedding day, to add to Carrie's image of Liz and Bob well before any of this happened.

I enjoy featuring in Carrie’s story because it gives me a different perspective of myself. Is that how I look/looked to her then. She ascribes such kind motives to me. It’s true I had wanted to reassure her in some way about her heart, as I believe had my husband, but I think I am not as benign as Carrie’s Liz comes across.

Even the fact that I write about this now makes me wonder whether it’s not a sort of retaliation. You write about me and I’ll write about you. But now I write about a real person who is also a fictional character and quake inside because Carrie reads my blog.

I’m giving a talk in a couple of weeks on the topic of ‘Auto/biography’: an excess of fiction or in excess of it? As chance would have it, and chance/serendipity is such a wonderful companion, my copy of William Michaelian’s, A Listening Thing, arrived during the week.

I opened the first pages and found these wonderful words in his preface. ‘We can’t escape the fact that life is fiction, and fiction is life – a point upon which science and the practical mind are tragically confused. The practical mind says, ‘That which is imagined does not really exist’ and science which wears matching socks even on weekends, trots out any number of laws to support this bland assumption. But laws are yesterday’s news, placeholders until something even more sensible comes along. Then we laugh at the old laws, just as if an alien race had made them, a race comprised of beings not nearly as smart as we – while, thanks to laws and our adherence to them, and worship of them, we have forgotten more of value than we will ever know, which is to say an arrogant, universal thimbleful.’’

So William too writes about a fictional character, Stephen Monroe, who is also himself, the author and narrator, William Michaelian, but at the same time not himself.

If this stuff ties you up in knots I’m not surprised. I find myself twisting over myself in trying to find a way of describing something that seems so intangible.

Why does it make us flinch to be written about? According to Helen Garner, ‘it’s not so much the revelation of fact, as the feeling that somebody else is telling your story, and stating something without the justifying tone that you use yourself...You feel stripped and bare and you can’t say “Oh well that’s just me,” in that cosy way that one does.’

When someone writes about you, they use their own words, their own impressions. They look at you from the outside, whereas you can only see yourself from the inside. You can only imagine how you might come across.

When I read about myself on the page, it’s like looking into one of those distorted mirrors you find at a circus. There’s one in the children’s section at the Melbourne Museum. I went there during the week with my grandson and we looked at ourselves reflected there. Three mirrors flowed down the wall, the one flat, the other convex, and the third concave.

In the two distorted mirrors we saw ourselves, stunted and deformed, too tall in the neck, too short in the torso, and as we giggled and danced in front of our images, they became even more deformed.

We came back three times. To be able to contort our self image into so many odd shapes and sizes gave us great pleasure, the same pleasure I find when I or someone else uses my form and tries to shape me into something that is not quite how I see myself from the inside.

But even myself inside feels like that person in the mirror, too long here, too wide there, a leery grin here, eyes too big in my head there, a caricature of myself, whoever she is, in all her many manifestations.

I came into the kitchen just now, early morning and no one else is awake as yet, and found one of the cats chewing on the remains of what looked to be a mouse. I approached with the intention of retrieving the mouse. For some reason I do not enjoy the sight or sound of a cat munching on mice bones.

The cat let our a low growl. He wasn’t giving up his prey so easily. In the end I left him to it, but wondered why with full bowls of perfectly produced shop bought cat food, the stuff the cats generally prefer, the stuff that comes in tins from the supermarket, should this cat prefer his own caught mouse, disgusting bones and all?

I’m not a cat. I cannot say, but perhaps it’s the same as in the writing process. We land on something and cannot let it go. We gnaw away at it or it gnaws away at us and will not let us be.

Have you ever been written about? How was it for you? Disarming, disturbing, delightful? Or something else altogether? Anything’s possible.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Because I'm freezing

My youngest daughter is learning to drive. In these first few weeks she is having proper lessons with an RACV driving instructor before she is ready to go out and practice with her parents.
‘The instructor is so strict,’ she said to me the other day as I drove her to school. ‘I so much as creep off the white line a fraction and he orders me back.' She turns towards me. 'You don’t always stay on the white line.’

‘I know, ' I said. 'But it’s like learning the rules of grammar. You need to be meticulous when you first learn them and follow the rules to the letter. Only when you understand them can you deviate.’

Learning the rules of the road are more essential to the preservation of life than learning the rules of grammar but I suspect there is merit in first learning to do something – whatever it is – strictly, according to some set of rules and then using your intuition to know when to break them.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the day I broke my leg last year, 4 September 2010. I must take care to avoid a repeat. Lightning, they say, never strikes in the same place twice. It’s unlikely I’ll break my leg again, but why, I wonder, is it such a time of anxiety?

Twenty years ago almost to the day, on 2 September 1991, the analysts gave me the sack from the psychoanalytic training. I do not write about this event in my blog as it seems too unacceptable to mention in such a public forum, besides it belongs to a part of my life I do not include here, my professional life. And yet it is an event that also sparked the writing of my thesis on the desire for revenge and so it is an essential brick in the wall of my story.

It’s funny how blogs represent only parts of our lives and other parts remain hidden from view. Mostly I hide the things of which I feel most deeply ashamed. Even as they peek out at me and beg to be included in my writing. Until I can move a little past the initial gut wrenching tug of shame I cannot speak about them. I must hide them from view. So it is with the analytic training.

Twenty years is a long time to feel so deeply about an unfortunate event and although I do not write in detail here about this experience, you can take my word for it, this rates for me as one of the worst experiences of my adult life.

Though of course, like so many traumatic experiences it has proved itself to be one of the most useful. It stimulated me to go back to writing, an activity I had abandoned once I hit adolescence, when I first decided on a career in the helping professions.

Here I shall include an image of my father circa 1964. I include it as a cryptic reference to my father who had an influence on the experiences to which I allude here and also to break up the text. I'm trying hard to respect people's abhorrence within the the blogosphere for reams of writing.

There are two stories that come to mind here. The first I heard on the TV series Ballykissangel, when the priest, Peter Clifford, first acknowledges his love for Assumpta Fitzgerald

There’s this baby polar bear swimming in the sea and he climbs out, runs across the ice to his mother and says, ‘Mum, are you sure I’m a polar bear?’ And his Mum says. ‘Don’t be daft. Of course I’m sure. You have white fur, you eat fish. You’re a polar bear. Now get back into the sea.’

But the little polar bear is not satisfied. He jumps out again and goes up to his father and says, ‘Dad, am I really a polar bear?’ And his father’s says ‘What are you talking about? Of course you’re a polar bear. You’ve got white fur, you eat fish, you’re a polar bear. Why do you ask?

And the baby bear says, ‘Because I’m freezing.’

This story has stayed with me, as a statement of the pain of not belonging, a fish out of water, to use an ill chosen cliché.

The second anecdote derives from a you tube I saw by chance recently on the nature of creativity through Hilary’s blog. To be truly creative the photographer, Andrew Zuckerman, argues you need ‘curiosity and rigour’. He uses the example of an experiment he’d heard about where researches used three groups of mice under three different sets of conditions.

The first mouse had everything it needed in the cage, and nothing was required of it to meet its needs. A sort of mouse heaven. The second mouse also had everything it needed, but in order to get to it, the second mouse had to go through a simple series of routine tasks. The third mouse had everything it needed but to get to it this mouse had to leave its cage and go through an elaborate series of contraptions including a high ledge along which it needed to walk suspended above a tub of water before this third mouse could get what it needed or wanted.

Then the researchers measured the brain development of the mice. They found the first mouse showed no dendritic growth at all. Nothing in its brain changed during the research period. The second mouse grew new dendrites, but it was the third mouse which not only grew more dendrites but also grew connections between them. The point being that to grow we need to face our fears and challenges.

The first story suggests a wish to get out of what to the baby polar bear felt like an overwhelming challenge, to belong where he felt he did not belong, whereas the second one urges us to press on regardless. There is an optimal level of challenges we must face. too much challenge and we buckle under, not enough and we atrophy.

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the day on which I was dismissed from the psychoanalytic training and I did not even recognise it at the time, though I left my keys behind in the changing rooms of a clothes shop where I had tried on a shirt for size and I misplaced my credit card after I bought the shirt and could not find it later in the evening when I was out for dinner with my husband and went to pay for our meal.

I knew then, as we walked home from the restaurant and I had still not located my credit card that something was not quite right.

Not until now this morning, after I have relocated my credit card in another section of my wallet where I usually only put coins and notes not cards, do I realise how unsettled I am. And tomorrow – and this I remember in advance – is the second anniversary of my broken leg. All up a time of painful memories and anniversaries. I must take extra care today and tomorrow.