Tuesday, December 04, 2012

You cannot shame the dead

And so I took the train through places whose names are familiar to me, through Blaxland, Westmead and Penrith, Emu Plains, Wentworth Falls to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. 

Here in the Green room I have a view at the corner to east and south or north and west.  I cannot tell which because I am geographically challenged. 

I have come to Varuna to find my father, or some semblance of him in a deeper directionality than I have known to date. 

Within half an hour of my arrival a storm typical for this time of the year erupted. 

Unplug, for fear of storms.  The house sits on an iron stone, and therefore despite all the precautions in the world, the manager tells us, ‘It’s safest to unplug.’

A breeze dense with the smell of rain pushes against the curtains and washes away some of the musty smell of this house in which countless writers have penned their words. 

I look at the photo of my father as a boy, maybe six, maybe seven.  He sits on the floor cross-legged, one in a row of seven children who sit in the first row in front of the adults at what looks to be a wedding shot. 

My grandparents are there too, in the corner first row standing behind the seated adults, which include the wedding couple.  I guess they are a married couple because the woman in white carries a bouquet, but she has no veil. 

The photo could have been taken in Freud’s time though not in Vienna, but in Haarlem, Holland where my father lived for his entire childhood, and where my father met my mother and from where he took her to Australia before I was born. 

I do not know why there are tears behind my eyes when I look at these photos, something about my inability to make sense of these times and these people, especially of my father and my father’s father and his mother.  The mystery of these people. 

The boy who was once my father’s has lowered his head but he lifts his eyes towards the camera as if he mistrusts the person taking the photo and his arms are folded.  Some of the other children in the photo fold their arms as well.  A technique of the photographer in those days to keep the children still perhaps.

No one smiles as is the custom in these old photos, several are caught at that moment with eyes closed, including my paternal grandfather, the one who looks to me as though he could never be a relative of mine.  My grandmother on the other hand looks like me, the same long face, the angular chin. 

My great grandparents are in this photo, too.  They sit on the side of the bride and I can only assume that this photo was taken at the wedding of my father’s aunt.  Apart from my father, I knew none of these people unless I am to include my aunt Nell who might well be the baby in the photo seated on my great grandmother’s knee. 

Nell, I have met.  Nell who was named after my grandmother, Petronella and whom I by rights should have been named after but by the time I was born my mother tells me, my grandmother, Nell was ‘in disgrace’.

‘What did she do?’ I asked my mother, even as I have some idea of the answer.  I want my mother’s view. 

 But to ask my mother questions such as these plunges her into a fug of memory to which she does not want to return.  I can see it in her eyes.  That glazed look.  A look that says, ‘Must we go there again.  I can’t bear to think on it.  I only want to think about the good times.’ 

My mother is 93.  I should leave her in peace.  I should not trouble her about these things, but I cannot help myself. 

I worry at these thoughts like a dog at a bone.  I worry at these thoughts as if I am scratching at a wound whose scab is dry and ready to shear off but I know I should leave it scale off without help from me. And yet I persist.

‘We know she was imprisoned for embezzlement, but there was more to it than that.’

Your father had nothing to do with it, my mother says yet again as she has told me before.  An inspector came to our house.  An inspector with brass buttons on  his coat, brass buttons that my mother tells me were signs of his authority and he told my mother that she had nothing to worry about.  That my father had left home well before the events that led to his parents’ imprisonment took place. 

But what did they do?

‘Something sexual.  Something with the children.  The girls I think.  The boys, your father, they saw nothing.’

‘How can you be so sure,’ I say to my mother as I peel back another layer from her denial.  How can you be so sure given what he did to us? 

Even as I write this now I agonise over the name I might offer my older sister.  It is against the law to name the victims of incest in courts of law in the public domain.  It is all to do with protecting the innocence of the victims.  I have never understood this. 

How can the victims be held responsible for what was done to them as children and yet in concealing their names it is as if we blame them in some way?

 It comes down to shame. 

We are safe to name the dead, but not the living, for fear of shame.  You cannot shame the dead. 


Birdie said...

I do a lot of geneology and have been able to find out a lot of secrets. One thing though that always seems to keep buried is the molestations. That said, it speaks volumes when a family member (like my grandmother) left the family home and never went back or had any contact. My grandmother had many problems when she was alive. When a family member was asked all that was said was that her father "was not a nice man". When questioned further all that was said was "You don't want to know".
I say let us shame the dead. No more secrets. Let us pull this crap out of the closet. Enough.

Mary LA said...

Excavating the past -- so carefully done and with such persistence Elisabeth.

River said...

I can only hope that you find the answers you need and that for the future your family and descendants are much less troubled.

Jim Murdoch said...

Maybe you can’t shame the dead but you can certainly taint their memory. For the last few weeks—although it seems to have died down a bit now—the main headline day after day here in the UK has been concerning the TV presenter Jimmy Savile who died just over a year ago; I can’t imagine it’s not made the news in Australia too. He’s been accused of hundreds of sexual offences and no one now will remember all the good he did in his life; all that’s been blotted out. At the moment, as the law stands, one can’t be stripped of a knighthood posthumously—it’s a living honour—but I can honestly see the law being changed in this instance as public feelings are running high. The shame will have to be carried by his family who’ve already had to have him tombstone removed and have issued a public apology.

As for whether Savile felt shame when he was alive we’ll never know. Perhaps he did. I can’t imagine him not being ashamed but that’s me judging him by my standards. I’ve done things in my life that I’ve been told were sinful (e.g. living in sin) but that never stopped me and I did them in the full knowledge that what I was doing was (in some people’s eyes) wrong. Savile was brought up as a Roman Catholic so I refuse to believe that he did what he did without experiencing guilt if not shame although probably both. That he was not publicly vilified is something the public will have to live with but at least the Catholics out there can find some comfort in the fact he will be roasting in hell for all eternity.

My father died in 1996, so seventeen years ago almost. I wrote the following poem a day or two after he passed. Technically it’s not a very good poem. I’ve never tried to get it published and never will. My dad, like all of us, did some bad things while he was alive. I know about most of them I think but not in great detail. Even when the opportunities presented themselves I never pressed him to explain or excuse himself and then he died and any chance I might’ve had to learn the truth was gone. I hadn’t been putting off the conversation. I knew it would never take place. I knew as much as I needed and wanted to know. I can understand why you might feel the need to press your mother a little and I’m not saying it’s right or wrong only that I wouldn’t do it.


So he's dead.

So I'll never get the answers
to the questions I never asked
so he didn't have to lie
and make matters worse.

So I'll never get to know now
but what would I do if I did?
It would be all the more for me
to have to forgive.

And I've got enough to forget as it is.

So he's dead.
So what?

So what?

16 January 1996

Kirk said...

I believe you've mentioned in the past that you were in college sometimes during the 1970s, so that gives me some idea of your age. You believe the picture was taken during "Preud's time" Freud died in 1939, but I'm thinking you mean Freud's heyday, roughly 1899 to 1915. The way people are dressed in that picture does indicate it's from that era, with the exception of that young woman seated in the chair at the extreme right. She's showing a bit of leg, which I think wouldn't have come into fashion until a few years later, though her legs crossed might have pushed her hem upwards. The reason I'm going on about all this, is that if your father was schoolboy's age in 1915, even in 1920, he would have been up there in years by the time you were born. He would have been a little older than your mother, too. Do you think having a wife and kids at a later age might have been a problem for your father, and been a contributing factor in the way he treated, or mistreated, you all?

PhilipH said...

You cannot shame the dead ...
Perhaps not. After all, when one's dead nothing matters to them, but, as in the case the once "honoured" Jimmy Savile of Top of the Pops fame, the truth about shameful acts will put the record straight.

MedicatedMoo said...

I think you can shame the dead but, better still, reveal what they did and show current and future generations how destructive and soul destroying abuse (and the secrecy behind it) is.

Your determination and bravery shines through, Elisabeth.

Elisabeth said...

I agree, Birdie, we need to drag the 'crap' out of the closet, otherwise it stinks the place up for everyone for evermore.

That said, it's not easy to do and there are plenty who'd prefer a veneer of respectability in spite of the background stench.

Thanks, Birdie.

Elisabeth said...

I am persistent, Mary La, but even I can slow down at times. Sorry therefore for the long delay between responses.

Thanks, Mary La.

Elisabeth said...

I certainly hope the future is less troubled for those who travel after me, River, though not too untroubled. Too much freedom from trouble can lead to a sort of stagnation I fear, but of course too much trouble is worse.

Thanks, River.

Elisabeth said...

Yes, Jim, we have heard here about Jimmy Saville and his behaviour, all the damaged souls in his wake. Shame is such a powerful emotion. It has a contagious effect and often we feel shame on behalf of others who should feel ashamed instead.

We all do things of which we're ashamed. It'd be a worry if we didn't. The burden of shamelessness, unless of course it's foisted on us by others.

This poem to your father is poignant indeed. I remember a time before my husband's father died when he, my husband, tried to talk to his father about past events and hod father said he'd take his secrets with him to the grave. An awful response and in context very provocative.

It's a generational thing perhaps, this competition between fathers and sons. So very sad.

Thanks, Jim and I'm sorry to take so long to respond. I've had a hectic time back from Varuna.

Elisabeth said...

My father was 25 when his first child was born ad he would have been around 44 when the last came along, Kirk. That's not so old to me though in my father's time it might have been. He was born in 1917 and died in 1982.

I don't ascribe my father's difficulties to his age when his children were born, more to his experiences in childhood with his own parents, especially his abusive father. But you can never really know for sure what drives these things. Age. early familial experience, migration, war poverty etc.

Thanks, Kirk.

Elisabeth said...

Jim mentioned the notorious Jimmy Saville ,too, Philip, And yes, you're right, posterity will judge JS and shame him forever. Even if it can no longer touch him, it touches his reputation forevermore.

Thanks, Philip.

Elisabeth said...

I suppose you can shame the dead in the eyes of the living Kath, even if the dead are spared its impact in life. I suppose, it all depends on your perspective on the afterlife. How dead is dead?

Thanks for the kind thoughts, Kath.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

I guess the abuse your dad may have experienced got passed on. It seems that abuse is a thing that goes on from one generation to the next. What is sadder is that religion and sins being bad have had little impact at correcting a serious flaw. Even religious teachers harmed others!
Something seems to be very wrong in a corrupted mind. Few ever break out of the pattern. Not sure if the word shame is able to make a hurt better but a more open discussion that's now coming along might help.