Sunday, June 30, 2013

Baby it's cold outside

I have an ear worm in my head, a song I heard on the radio last night.  The meaning of the lyrics are plain enough: in some cold and snowy place in America a young man  attempts to persuade a young woman to stay the night.  

The man offers many reasons why the woman should not leave, with the unspoken subtext of enjoying sex together.  She offers up as many reasons as to why she should go.  It’s clear she’s ambivalent.  

‘The neighbours might talk…My father will be pacing the floor…’ But the young man urges her to have one more drink because ‘it’s old outside’. 

I used to enjoy this song till last night.  Last night I listened to the lyrics again and thought more about the narrative presented here.  A familiar one in which a girl needs to be persuaded to enjoy sexuality.  

No doubt it’s rooted in the song's context, the 1940s, pre contraception, when women ran the risk of unwanted pregnancies, but maybe there’s more to it than that. 

The push/pull of desire: the man seemingly wants it the most, the woman might or might not acquiesce.  Girls offer it up, their virginity that is, and boys take it.  Or so I learned as a young woman on the cusp of sexual desire myself. 

But for me and I imagine for most of us, women and men, it's not so simple.  

As a young child I decided that sex between the sexes was too hot to handle so I tried to put it out of my mind.  I left my body to itself.  I refused to explore it, at least not what lay below. I experimented with my younger sister but we stayed at the top half with our imaginary breasts.  Besides, because I was older she gave me – or I took on – the role of the man. 

I was the one who fondled my sister’s imaginary breasts.  I was the one who wore ‘jocks’ as we liked to call them in those days, men’s underpants.  The word 'jocks' set my heart racing, this when I was seven, eight, nine, ten. 

Then I decided through lathers of guilt that my antics with my sister must stop. They were wrong, I knew, closely attached to impure thoughts and therefore only admissible, if at all, in confession and even then too shameful to admit to a priest. 

I started to find myself excited by my own body, by the slowly emerging shape of my breasts.  I had a black jumper with a roll neck, which I wore with one of my older sister's cast off woollen skirts and strode up and down Wentworth Avenue past the house of an Italian boy who lived a few houses along.  I imagined him noticing me through his window, both desperate for the thrill of seduction.

The boy was older than me, in his late teens even early twenties, and lived with his parents in one of those houses whose front garden had been taken over for vegetables.  Tomato plants on stakes, green lettuces in neat lines all the way up to the front door.  It seemed to me then an odd use of garden space, as if the boy's family had somehow reversed their sense of space and put the plants that should grow in the backyard into the front.  I did not realise the Mediterranean migrant’s predilection then of using up as much space as possible for growing food. 

My young boy/man wrote me a letter one day.  It arrived in our letter box addressed to me, not by name but by description, to the girl with the long fair hair.  I must have intercepted it somehow before anyone else could see it.  The paper was pale lilac with a splodge of pansies in a corner, or was this the paper on which I wrote my return letter?  His letter was filled with spelling mistakes and clumsy wording.  It masked an invitation to meet.

I showed it to my younger sister for advice, and she was furious.  Jealous perhaps that I might have given up on her and our time together exploring each others bodies or playing at dolls.  She wanted me to have nothing to do with this boy/man. 

My sister destroyed the letter while I was elsewhere.  She took it from my underwear drawer and tore it up.  She told me as much when I went looking for it later.  She had disapproved of this, my first seduction.  

The story ends there except in my memory.  It ended when my family moved house.  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Throbbing like a heart

Yesterday I received a sad letter from the man who tunes our piano.  A snail mail letter – not a Face Book announcement – that he has had to retire early given a diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease, only six months ago. 

This dreadful disease takes away a person’s muscular capacity slowly and relentlessly to the stage where they can no longer swallow or breathe.  They can even choke on their own saliva.  And it’s one of those dreadful hereditary conditions it seems where the diagnosis of one member in your family can signal the possibility that others might be similarly inflicted. 

Which brings me to heredity, and the degree to which we carry our parents’ legacies in our genes. 

I’ve always been wary of the idea that something you cop is purely the result of heredity.  What you cop in your genes that is, with some exceptions, Motor Neurone Disease for one. 

Take a look at my family’s inheritance for instance.  Alcoholism and heart disease and a propensity towards sluggish bowels.  Beyond the physical, some of the accompanying behaviours, must be learned.

One of my sisters told me the other day she thought she might have had a prolapse.  That’s one of the ailments that stays with me since I was a child simply because I could not and still do not understand it.

My mother once received a letter from Holland from her cousin who had suffered a prolapse on the dance floor. 

Something in the words ‘prolapse on the dance floor’ led me to believe that my second cousin’s insides had fallen out onto the parquetry. I could see them there in my imagination so many red jewels sparkling on the dance floor. 

I did not take the fantasy further but if I try now I can see my cousin scoop up her insides under her skirt and flee for the toilet. 

What then?  Call for an ambulance.  No spilled blood, no membranes burst or ruptured, only the presence of internal organs now externalised like bunches of purple grapes interspersed with blue veins and throbbing like a heart. 

I have feared for a prolapse ever since.  But people tell me it’s not such a big deal though it can interfere with your capacity to hold off the need to pee.

Is this a sign of aging, this preoccupation with a failing body?  Perhaps it’s not just aging, maybe more a case of ignorance.

I could find out more about the true nature of a prolapse but for the time I prefer my imaginary rendering.  It has so much more promise.  

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The distribution of labour

There’s a dead mouse on the kitchen floor and I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.  The thought of picking it up fills me with revulsion.  

It’s not that I haven’t removed dead mice before but if I can leave it for my husband to remove I will. 

I thought about the issue of who is to remove the unwanted stuff the other day when I was cleaning up after the dog had peed on the kitchen floor.  The dog had freaked out because the rain outside was heavy.  Whenever there’s heavy rain the dog refuses to venture outside to pee. 

The point of telling you this is not to revolt you at the idea of a dog peeing on the kitchen floor – another thing that appals me – but my observation that when it comes to the dog’s ‘accidents’ regardless of who discovers the mess, I clean it up. 

It seems it’s my job to deal with unwanted substances, dog and cat discharges and the like, whereas it’s my husband’s job to remove dead animals, that is if he’s around, again irrespective of who finds the poor creature. 

I do not remember discussing these processes, they just happen.  The distribution of labour.  One of those things that happens in households often unconsciously.  As long as both parties in the arrangement are happy with their share of the load all will be well.  

Problems erupt when one or other feels unfairly overloaded. 

Half a day later I have forgotten about the mouse imagining that my husband in his usual manner has seen it, taken out a plastic bag, picked it up within said bag and removed it to the outside rubbish.  

My sister-in-law and her husband visit and we sit down to a cup of tea when I see the mouse again. This time I point it out.  My in-laws are from the country they understand, but I lie as though it's the first I've seen of it.
‘Do I have to get rid of it?’ my husband asks.
‘Yes please,’ I say, not owning up to my earlier knowledge.  

I did not want to ask my husband earlier because it would have meant he’d have to leave off reading the newspaper from several rooms away and the obvious thing in a situation like this is for me to do the job myself.  After all I am capable and were my husband not at home I would do it.  

I have done it before.  But something made me leave it to him.  

The tyranny of our long established roles, perhaps, our distribution of labour.  Dead animals his job, dog pee, mine.  

Fair exchange? 

Sunday, June 09, 2013

The new wounded

All week long I’ve suffered the indignity of a cold.  It started with my lost voice and moved up and down from my nose to my chest.  It’s subsiding now but the urge not to cough at all the wrong times is excruciating, for instance to break into that hacking racket in the middle of a lecture is almost as bad as having your mobile phone go off in the middle of a public talk. 

There’s something awful about trying to stop a cough from starting through sheer force of will.  It’s that sneaky little itch that lands mid throat that makes my eyes water and my nose run and try as I might to ignore it I have to cough it away.  Delicate sips of water are not enough.  

Sometimes my body becomes even more of an irritant than I’d like.  And immediately my mother's  mantra to 'think of the starving Biafrans' comes racing through.  After all it could be so much worse.

On Thursday night I took myself off to a free public lecture at the University of Melbourne.  Ruth Leys talked about a group of people she and others call 'the new wounded'.  She talked about the ways in which people suffering from trauma are viewed differently over time.  

There’s a theorist from France, Catherine Malabou, who argues essentially that all people who’ve been traumatised, whether through abuse or torture or war or accident, whether as a consequence of literal brain trauma such as in brain injury or even folks with schizophrenia and autism are part of this new category.  Her emphasis is on what she calls 'cerebrality'.  The brain and affect.  

For these people the consequences are dire indeed.  In Malabou’s terms they lose all connection to the past before the traumatic event and become almost like robots, affect-less people unable to make decisions, unable to feel compassion and so on.  These people, these victims if you like, are no different in Malabou’s terms from the perpetrators.  All have been traumatised so badly as to cease to exist as they once were.  The lack all intentionality.  

She has a point.  But it’s one I think she takes to extremes.  It’s the sheer physicality of her view, that we are bodies first and foremost and if our brains get damaged in whatever way, whether literally through injury or emotionally through trauma, we can change so dramatically as to cease to be human.  The old us no longer exists.  

Ruth Leys argues against this extreme view.  She reckons, and I agree, that we are far more complex.  What about resilience, as one person in the audience asked, and the fact that some people cope with trauma differently? Some do well in spite of the worst and others break down completely.

I find this fascinating, struggling with these ideas, which I’ve boiled down in far too simple terms.  

My daughter who joined me for the talk kept digging me in the ribs for my enthusiasm during question time.  She complained that I nodded my head in agreement with the speaker too many times.

‘You’re such a suck’ she said to me later.  'You have to agree with everything she says.'

 I think about this now later and wonder.  Am I a suck or was I merely trying to respond to a talk about which I felt enthusiastic.  I try hard to engage with talks because if I’m going to sit for a hour listening to someone speak on a topic that’s dear to their heart and meaningful, a talk I have elected to attend because it’s on a topic that is also of interest to me, then I want to make the most of it.  

I want to join in the talk as though there’s only the two of us, the speaker and me and maybe one or two others, in the room.  I hate the distance that can emerge between speaker and audience.  I want a conversation, not a monologue.  I find if I engage with all of me, including my nodding head or furrowed brow at times when things don’t make sense to me then I’m more likely to take things in and to remember.  

Most of the time I'm not conscious of this, until a daughter jabs me in the ribs.  Most of the time I sense I'm like any other member of the audience.  

 My daughter I expect is fearful that I will embarrass her, after all Melbourne University is her stomping ground.  It was once mine many moons ago but now it’s her place.  I must not take over her territory.  

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Crazy love

This morning I have no voice.  I lost it over night to a cold that has grabbed my throat and will not let me speak.  I put it down at a physical level to ill health but at an emotional level to a talk I gave on Thursday afternoon to a small group of academics.  

My talk went down like a sack of potatoes, at least it did as far as I could see and I’ve been feeling sick, bad and voiceless ever since.

What did I do wrong I keep asking myself?  I don’t think it was the delivery.  I usually speak well enough.  I have a clear voice.  Was it the content, one of those situations where people do not know how to respond because I somehow wrapped it all up and left no room for further discussion? 

The topic was not the easiest: sexual domestic violence  and feminism.  Perhaps I should not have expected more from an unsuspecting audience. 

I threw a little theory at them and one woman described it as a summary.  Another said she agreed with all I had said and there was nothing more to say.

I find I am re-thinking the whole domestic violence thing.  The reign of terror under which I lived as a child and for which I then held my father responsible – his alcoholism and abused childhood – is shifting. 

I listened to another of those TedX talks in which Lesley Morgan Steiner tells the story of how she met and married a man when she was 22 and of how this man was kindness personified when they first dated.  Right up until a few days before they married he did not threaten or abuse her. 

She married him and stayed with him in part because she believed that underneath it all he was a good and troubled man and that it was her job to help him.  She stayed with him because over time he had made decisions to move away from family and friends into a more isolated part of the world and she had gone along because she thought it would be good for him.  

You do these things, she thought then.  You make sacrifices for your loved one even if it goes against your own wishes and needs. Crazy love.

My mother agreed to come to Australia on my father’s urging and my mother has described a similar pattern, only now do I recognise more clearly the degree to which she became trapped in an impossible marriage and could not get out. 

I recognise that statistics are unreliable but it surprises me to read that people who get out of abusive relationships such as Morgan Steiner describes – a man who pulled her by the hair across a room, bashed her against the wall, and repeatedly threatened her with a gun – are in serious danger.  

Seventy percent of such people, mainly women, will die at the hands of the partner they are trying to escape.  It is the most critical phase of such a relationship because the one deserted will feel he/she has nothing to lose.

I’m troubled by the degree to which Steiner describes her ex husband’s behaviour as pre-meditated.  He had sought to isolate her, Steiner says, almost as if he were grooming her for abuse, but I expect the pattern might seem like that in retrospect.  

Here again is another person who himself had been abused.  And although not all people who have been abused go on to become abusers, some do, and I suspect much of what they have learned at the hands of their abusive parents, or step parents, or whoever it was who treated them so cruelly, they might well inflict the same on their own loved ones.

My mother’s mantra, ‘ he loves most those he hurts the most’, never made sense to me when I was young.  It does now.  Not that I condone it but I recognise that when someone has been damaged they have almost no other way of dealing with their internal trauma than to project it out and inflict it on those most vulnerable and closest to them, their spouses, their children. 

Mostly this sort of violence occurs by men towards women, but there are also men who get into abusive relationships with women who have themselves been abused.  It’s not exclusively a woman’s club but it is a club of those abused and abusers and the only way to help, as Steiner says, is to talk about it. 

Steiner escaped her relationship after she told others about it, her family, her neighbours, her friends.  Anyone who would listen.  

Funny that I should feel so locked inside the bubble of my own childhood memories today, unable to get out of it after I gave my talk last week, because I fear I may have unwittingly inflicted something on my audience for which they were unprepared and rather than abuse me back – they were not cruel – they froze me out with silence, not entirely perhaps but polite and distant enough for me to feel like an outsider who has since lost her voice.