Archive | February, 2014

What a woman wants, what a woman needs…

28 Feb

Yesterday I visited a place on the NSW south coast that once served as a sanctuary, a place to which I fled after an almost terminal encounter with cancer left my whole being drastically weakened, terrified to live and equally terrified to die. Daily life had become impossible, I no longer knew how to fulfil its expectations. I needed solitude, away from city life, I needed to escape the claims and demands of human interaction, even with those I loved and who loved me, and I needed this so desperately I think I might have physically attacked anyone who tried to hold me in place. Fortunately, nobody did, I was reluctantly let go when I promised to allow visits, as long as nobody stayed too long, and how long was ‘too long’ was to be determined by me.

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It was also fortunate that we owned a caravan behind the sand dunes on a largely deserted beach. You can’t live in a caravan, they said. You can’t live there all by yourself, you’ve been so sick, look at you, you have no hair and all your bones are showing. Fuck off, of course I can, I told them, unkindly. Any attempt at what I perceived as thwarting me made me frantically distressed, as if I was being pinned down by a body stronger and more powerful than mine that I had to fight off, or suffocate.

The caravan was in one of those old-fashioned parks where families spent their holidays year after year for as long as anyone could remember. When I arrived, exhausted from the four-hour drive and the emotion of goodbyes, the place was largely empty, being out of holiday season and in the middle of autumn. It was cold. The south coast climate is at best fickle, I have known us wrapped in sweaters and blankets on Christmas Day. The caravan, unoccupied for months during my illness and initial recovery, was musty and damp, a habitat for spiders and insects. The day was overcast, adding to the gloom, and while our spot beside the creek in a grove of melaleucas was idyllic, it allowed for little light under such a low grey sky. I had a panic attack. I couldn’t stay in the spider-infested gloom. I couldn’t go back to our light-filled Bondi Beach home where I suffered anxiety attacks every time I went out the front door into the neighbourhood I had, prior to my illness, loved to inhabit, with its cafes where I met my friends, ate weekend breakfasts with my husband and whoever else happened by, where we swam or walked the winter beach hand in hand talking as we always did with such energy and delight, even at the times we disagreed with practically everything the other said.

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After the cancer, I couldn’t talk about anything anymore. The ongoing blows inflicted by the illness, so unexpected, so unpredictable, they seemed unending in their variety and persistence. After cancer is a time largely underestimated in its power to disrupt. Generally, people think you ought to be relieved, happy you got away with it this time, determined to embark on a recovery regime that will get you back in the swim of things just like you were before. In reality, at least for me, it’s when the horror of the experience actually hits home, something that is impossible when you’re going through the treatments and your world has become medicalised to the extent that it overwhelms all other realities. Post cancer, every little twinge in your body is noted with alarm: is it coming back? For months I woke in the night drenched in sweat, from nightmares the details of which I could never remember, and a debilitating weariness dogged my days. There was nothing that did not leave me exhausted, and tearful. I couldn’t manage all this, and human beings as well.

I walked along this same beach yesterday, under a similar low, soft grey sky, the familiar smell of kelp, the haunting cries of seagulls, the gritty south coast sand between my toes. At the end of my beach there’s a broken wooden jetty where I used to lie on my stomach, peering intently at the stingrays gliding through the clear water beneath me. The rhythm of those days and weeks and months of solitude came back to me. In the mornings waking up sweat-soaked and panicked, climbing out of my single bunk bed to make tea on the gas stove, cold, even if the day was warm, because what I remember from those months is how I could never warm myself, even under piles of blankets, even in the hottest sun, it was as if I had a frigid core that nothing could reach, it was as if I had entirely lost my previously automatic ability to regulate even my body temperature. The trembling of my body, most especially my thighs, and the cold sweat drying on my skin. The fear of moving. The terror of putting one foot in front of the other. The utter loss of everything ordinary.

My husband and my adolescent children would visit and though I loved to see them, the relief I felt at their departure, at the resumption of my solitude, made me ashamed. I remembered yesterday the feeling of my starved gulping, my greedy devouring of nourishment not from my loved ones whom I invariably felt I had to reassure, but from the solitude of the natural world in which I was immersed. That was my healing. My guilt at abandoning them was great. But my need to be alone in this wild landscape overwhelmed it. I wanted nothing except what I needed to stay alive, some books, some music. The hurt I caused them did not become fully apparent till some years later when my eldest son, beside himself with unexpressed distress from that whole period of our lives, shouted at me, You didn’t need any of us! You just left us! You didn’t let us help you, you are such a fucking loner, Mum, you don’t fucking need anybody!

Which left me speechless. And reaching out for him and he came into my arms, grown up, so much bigger than me, and sobbed.

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I don’t know how it is for others, but I’ve always had a dreadful struggle between what I need for myself, and what others need from me, and what I want to give them because I love them. Sometimes I think I will die if I don’t have time absolutely alone. Sometimes I cannot bear to engage in one more conversation about, essentially, nothing, the kind of conversations that make up so much of our daily discourse, the words that serve to weave the binding threads between people, and that is their purpose. Sometimes I think if I am not able to sit in silence in the natural world for as long as I need to, I will start breaking things. It’s as if the healing never really finishes, needs to be topped up from time to time with a return to the inner self who increasingly becomes more solid, more real, than any outer persona and whose needs are so far from anything found in the everyday world with its constructed conventions, and its claims that largely require almost incessant, low-intensity interactions for their fulfilment.

For a woman to do what I did, leaving home, husband and family who cared for me through the desperate and dangerous phase of my illness, insisting on solitude rather than accepting their love was seen largely as selfish, and it was, there’s no denying that. It had a price, for all of us, but yesterday I understood that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong or frightening about paying a price for something deeply desired, these are deals we strike every day, choices made, choices rejected, and almost every one of them has some effect on someone to a greater or lesser degree. I still don’t know, after all this time in this life, how much I am allowed to take for myself, how much selfishness I am allowed, how many choices I may make that cause another hurt or discomfort, how responsible I must be for protecting another from disruption in the pursuit of my own desires and needs. With every situation this must be weighed up anew, and I have made some horrible errors. It seems that the important thing is that I continue to bother to attempt these fraught calculations, even though my sums may be dreadfully wrong. I hope that is the case, though I don’t expect I shall ever know.

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

The fundamental reason people seek asylum in Australia: because we tell them they can.

19 Feb

Both the ALP and LNP governments have, for more than a decade now, chosen to ignore the fundamental reason why people seek asylum in this country: we are signatories to the UNHCR Refugee Convention, and as such, we currently offer asylum to anyone who seeks it, no matter what their method of arrival.

Instead of withdrawing from this Convention, the “honest” thing to do as apparently we no longer consider it to have any validity whatsoever,  the current Australian government has issued a comic book, explaining to potential refugees why they should not come to this country in the belief that we will honour our commitment, because, quite simply we will not.

We will not speedily assess their claims for refugee status in Australia. We will, in fact, transport them to hideous off-shore processing centres where they will languish in indefinite detention with no certainty at all about their futures, and if that is not enough, they will be subject to violence resulting in serious injury and death from sources that as yet remain unidentified, because we do not adequately protect them.

This is what we do, instead of honouring the obligations we undertook when we first signed the UNHCR Convention in 1951, then ratified it in 1967.

We are despicable. Our politicians have made us a despicable, lying, obfuscating nation without the courage to withdraw from a commitment we have no intention of honouring. Australia enjoys the kudos of being a civilised signatory to the UNHCR Convention. At the same time, Australia has no intention of honouring our voluntarily undertaken commitments to that Convention.

This is our primary shame. Our hypocrisy. Our disgrace.

And both the ALP and the LNP have brought us to this.

The murderous refugee “policies” of Australian governments

18 Feb

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has just confirmed that one asylum seeker is dead, another has been flown to Australia for treatment after having been shot, and seventy-seven more are injured, twenty-two critically, after tensions at the Manus Island detention centre exploded yesterday.

This country, our country, my country, by virtue of being a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, invites those fleeing persecution and danger to seek sanctuary and asylum here, NO MATTER WHAT THE METHOD OF THEIR ARRIVAL.

We are known to those in countries where daily life has become untenable as a signatory to that Convention, as a country where they may safely ask for refuge.

As long as we remain a signatory to the Convention, we are issuing an invitation to those who live in daily fear, danger and despair. Children. Women. Men.

But we are liars. We are extending a false invitation. We do not offer sanctuary. We do not offer a decent hearing in which claims for refugee status will be fairly and legally assessed. We do not offer the possibility of resettlement and the opportunity to contribute.

Instead, we have turned the misery of children, women and men into a political football. With psychopathic disregard for our fellow human beings, we have ignored their desperation, and done everything possible to keep them away from us.

So, Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott, Chris Bowen, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and the rest of you. You wanted to stop asylum seekers dying at sea? Well, your methods have them dying and critically injured  in detention. Where’s your fucking conscience now, then?

On ladies who fear being silenced by trolls

17 Feb

In order for this post to make any sense, you’ll need to read this piece titled “Twitter: a new world of abuse against women” by Julia Baird in which the author addresses the problem of “evil” trolls.

Then I strongly urge you to read this piece by Helen Razer, titled “A troll in the park” in which, among other things, the author points out some crucial statistical absences in Ms Baird’s argument.

Then you ought to read this piece by Cathy Young, titled “Is there a cyber war on women,” and if you want further complexity, you could read this piece by me, titled “Toxic, online and feminist. Really?” in which I address the matter of white media feminists claiming they are being “trolled” and “silenced”by women of colour, and am chastised in the comments for my audacity by a couple of white media feminists who no doubt have added me to their list of trolls.

No thinking person could quibble with the disagreeability of being targeted online for abuse. While I can control this on the blog, I’ve been surprised by the abuse sent my way when I’ve written for media outside of my control, and sometimes have had cause to wonder if the moderators were sleeping.  It is not nice. It is not acceptable. It can be frightening.  For women who are usually relatively safe, and have managed to construct an environment for ourselves that is relatively safe, the internet is an area over which we have no control.

An argument made by Ms Baird is that if  anonymity is forbidden at sites that provide the opportunity for engagement, the problem of online abuse will disappear. Very few trolls, apart from the famous ones who make a living from it, use their names, so there is some sense in the argument against anonymity.

However, many, many internet users prefer anonymity, not because they wish to abuse and troll, but because they prefer to maintain their own privacy for any number of good reasons. Should everyone be forced to identify themselves in order to provide a safe space for ladies who fear the troll will silence them?

To my mind, this would result in an appalling silencing on an appalling scale, and so is in no way acceptable.

If we are to participate in an online world we have to be able to deal with its reality, which is that we are not discussing topics around the dinner table in our homes, or only with the like-minded, but we are participating in a global exchange that lacks any of the usual social protections normally enjoyed by the privileged. Anyone can say anything to us. And they do.

Some of us may well be silenced by trolls and this is, of course, wrong and unfair. Yet I know many, many women, myself among them, who have endured enormous abuse, physical, sexual, emotional, mental and spiritual, and who have not been and never will be silenced by abuse we’ve experienced.

The world does not adapt itself to protecting us from the massive potential for abuse it contains. In the scheme of things, the sorry-arsed losers whose only source of pleasure is attempting to intimidate someone else on the internet are very low in the hierarchy of potential abusers. Yes, they say very mean things. Yes, they make threats that are alarming and intimidating. No, of course they shouldn’t do it, and we shouldn’t have to be subjected to it.  However, as there is no way of making the internet nice, and perhaps we should be grateful for that, we’re going to have to toughen up and learn, like the man kicked by a donkey, to overlook the insult on considering the source.

Don't feed the trolls

On the “unforgivability” of child sex abuse

3 Feb

Mandela ForgivenessOn the weekend, Dylan Farrow published a piece in the New York Times recounting her experience of childhood sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by her mother’s then partner, Woody Allen.

There was, predictably, an explosion of views on the matter. What caught my attention were the many observations that child sexual abuse is ‘unforgivable.’ As one who has lived through childhood sexual abuse, I find that assertion offensive, ignorant and entirely unhelpful, and I’m about to explain why this is so.

But before I do, there ought not to be any expectation for anyone to forgive injury. Forgiveness is an action that, if embarked upon, can take years to complete. It may never be completed. It may never be begun. I’m writing about my own experience as it has unfolded over many years, and what I needed to do for my own well-being.

What is meant when people talk about forgiveness?  The philosopher Charles Griswold, in his 2007 book Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, states that forgiveness should be understood as:

…a moral relation between two individuals, one of whom has wronged the other, and who (at least in the ideal) are capable of communication with each other. In this ideal context, forgiveness requires reciprocity between injurer and injured. I shall reserve the term forgiveness for this moral relation.

I am in complete disagreement with this definition. Many situations of  injury are such that it is impossible and/or entirely unwise for an injured party to communicate with a perpetrator. Many perpetrators never concede their actions have caused harm. Griswold’s paradigm excludes many from the possibility of engaging in the process of forgiveness, as he admits:

When none of the conditions is met, the threshold of what will count as forgiveness is not crossed;sadly, and painfully, in such cases we are either unforgiven, or unable to forgive.

My own perspective is a secular one, and I think of forgiveness as perhaps belonging in the human rights discourse rather than the religious, or any crypto-theological morality such as that espoused by Griswold.  When I have foresworn all desire for revenge, and any of the other abuses of resentment, I have forgiven. It is irrelevant if the perpetrator knows this or not, unless it is important for me that he/she does.

I don’t believe forgiveness requires the perpetrator’s remorse. I don’t believe an injured person needs to confront a perpetrator, or continue any association with him or her, in order to forgive them. Most importantly, I don’t believe forgiveness is first and foremost for the benefit of the perpetrator, but rather it’s a state of mind that can finally bring relief and freedom for the injured party from cripplingly painful and destructive emotions.

Which is not to say there’s anything amiss if an injured party chooses to confront their perpetrator. Only that this is not necessary for forgiveness.

I see forgiveness as a human rights matter because acts of revenge that cause suffering to another are always a human rights matter. …Using the suffering of a person or persons to satisfy oneself is morally objectionable, because it amounts to the treatment of wrongdoers as a means only, failing to respect their human worth, writes Trudy Govier in her book Forgiveness and Revenge. At the height of extreme pain caused by injury, it’s difficult if not impossible to think of the perpetrator as having any ‘human worth,’ however in order to inflict injury on me, the perpetrator has already used me as if I have no human worth. Am I to become like him/her? How will that help me?

While it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone to say ‘I would find that injury unforgivable if it were inflicted on me,’ it is not acceptable to apply that judgement to another. The state of non forgiveness is a horrific state in which to spend one’s life. Having been grievously injured by an abuser, is one then expected to suffer the agony of everlasting hurt and desire for a revenge that cannot possibly ever be commensurate with the injury? The desire for revenge, the inability to forgive (if we understand that term to mean the relinquishing of such desires) fixes the victim in their trauma and denies her or him the possibility of a life free from the aftermath of injury. The victim is trapped in a relationship of horrible and unwanted intimacy (for abuse is always intimate) the only escape from which is to forgive. Why, then, would anyone cruelly claim there is such a thing as an ‘unforgivable’ offence?

I will never forget, but I must, if I’m to have any life at all, forgive. The injurious act, as Hannah Arendt points out, is irredeemable, it presents us with …the predicament of irreversibility. This is but one of the challenges facing an injured person. The injury cannot be undone, the life-altering impacts cannot be undone, one is forever changed by the experience of being injured, the life that might have been, perhaps should have been is stolen, and one will never forget. As well as grieving the injury, I grieve the loss of who I would have been had this injury not occurred, a particularly difficult process for those injured while children, who can feel their childhood was destroyed by the actions of an adult.

Judith Butler, in Giving an Account of Oneself, The Spinoza Lectures, suggests that …it may be that the very way we respond to injury offers the chance we have to become human. Commensurate punishment or revenge dehumanises the victim of injury, however what humanises her/him is the opportunity to develop ...a model of ethical capaciousness that understands the pull of the claim, and resists that pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself.

What I understand Butler to be saying here is that in the space of uncomfortable tension creating by opposing claims (to punish or to abstain from punishing) the injured party has the opportunity to learn to live with powerful and irreconcilable desires and in so doing, move beyond the ‘unforgivable’ into a life free of revenge and its abuses.

In so doing, I am empowered. In contrast, if the injury done to me is deemed ‘unforgivable,’ I am condemned to a life of ongoing disempowerment, in which my actions are forever governed by my desire for revenge, and my bitter hatred of the one who has done this thing to me.

Commensurate punishment of a perpetrator may frequently be impossible. However, forgiveness …becomes possible from the moment it appears impossible. Its history would begin… with the unforgivable…what would be a forgiveness that forgave only the forgivable? asks Derrida.

Forgiveness must rest on a human possibility – I insist on these two words… he continues. Injury is a human action, the rape of a child takes place in the realm of human affairs. Monsters do not sexually abuse children, humans do. Forgiveness arises in the recognition of our common humanity, and the terrifying capacity for injury and destruction that humanity contains.

So this is why I object to child sexual abuse being described as ‘unforgivable.’ If I tell you I have forgiven, do you then tell me I’m deluding myself?

Do you tell me it is impossible for me to forgive what was done to me, and I don’t know what I’m talking about? Do you disempower me yet again with your opinion? Do you know better than I know myself what my life’s struggle has been? Would you have me lose my life to emotions that destroy my freedom, while affecting my perpetrator not one bit?

If I decide that what was done to me is unforgivable, though I may, at times of great distress, use that term, I am terminating all hope of freedom. Forgiveness is a mystery, beyond the reach of justice and punishment, both of which can be, and often are, incommensurate with the injury inflicted.

So let us speak of the mystery of forgiveness. Forgiving is imperative…it is extremely difficult to forgive. I don’t even know if forgiveness exists. Hélène Cixous

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