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What I want to say

27 Feb

I was prescient, it’s not a skill peculiar to survivors of childhood sexual abuse but it is one many of us acquire as an aid to survival.

In this instance, I said to my dear person on Monday afternoon, what’s happened with Pell? Shouldn’t we be hearing about it by now and less than twenty-four hours later, we heard that a jury had found him guilty of sexual offences against children.

Almost immediately, the parade of aggrieved, disappointed, distressed, shocked, disbelieving, sad, angry Catholics and other Pell supporters began moving like a sullen, offended beast across the media, in unedifying protest at the guilty verdict. Their contempt for the twelve women and men who arrived at this decision was palpable. Despite the complainant’s evidence and demeanour being inaccessible to the public, despite the jurors having made a decision informed by evidence denied to any other commentators, the parade of righteous outrage clearly considered itself superior in knowledge and judgement to just about anybody else.

Like many other survivors, I am used to though not at ease with the involuntary emotional, psychological and physical reactions provoked in me whenever there is public discussion of the sexual abuse of children. These reactions can vary, according to what is being discussed and how, whether I have been able to prepare myself or am taken unawares, and whether or not I’m in safe surroundings when I have to deal with their intrusion. I’m pretty good most of the time. I recognise what’s happening and can implement my self-soothing rituals until the distress eases. But today, I have been utterly, utterly undone.

It didn’t take me long to understand why today is different. It wasn’t hearing the details of Pell’s crimes, hard as they are to bear. For us survivors, these are not simply upsetting descriptions of vile acts. They are vile acts many of us have lived through, in my case, for five years. It wasn’t listening to the heart-rending statement of the living victim, and it wasn’t grief for the victim who is now dead, though the impact of both enormous sorrows had me sitting on the lid of the toilet with my head in my hands, howling.

No, what has brought me to my knees this morning is the reaction of people such as Miranda Devine, Andrew Bolt, and Father Frank Brennan who are perhaps the most prominent of those I think of as The Deniers. Both Devine and Bolt strenuously and stridently defend Pell, denying any guilt on his part and expressing their implacable disbelief of the survivor’s narrative. In their story the survivor is a liar and Pell is a noble man wrongly accused, martyr to a witch-hunt perpetrated against his church by non-believers. Their assessment appears to be based on little more than the notion that Pell is, in their terms, a good man whom they respect, and their unshakeable belief in the infallibility of their own judgement.

Brennan is more subtle, and considerably more labrythine as befits a Jesuit, however his unspoken message is equally clear: the allegations are highly improbable, the circumstances unbelievable. This Prince of the Church is the victim of a terrible zeitgeist, the survivor a liar or, sadly for all concerned, a fantasist in need of treatment.

I’ve been unable to read these commentaries without experiencing the return of what I can only describe as the soul ache of being disbelieved. This is the complete powerlessness of being disbelieved. It is the hopelessness and despair of being disbelieved. It is the realisation that nobody is going to help you, because they don’t believe you. It is the understanding that your perpetrator has won everything because they believe him, and not you. These are things you think when you are fifteen years old, and you’ve been thinking them, or variations of them, since you were ten. It gets so you hardly believe yourself. You hardly believe these things are being done to your body because everyone else says they aren’t.

If you are very lucky, and I was, somebody does eventually believe you and you are taken away and it stops. And then you spend the rest of your life, even when you’re the grandmother of babies you would die for, reminding yourself that you didn’t lie, you aren’t a liar, you told the truth and you are, remarkably, living a life.

That life, however, is never entirely free of what was done to you. You learn how to manage the psychological, emotional and physical quirks that sometimes cause you to hide in your bedroom, snarl at people who care for you, drink too much, withdraw into silence, cry, ache, shiver, and, if someone has taught you how, hold with tender love the child inside who is still fearful, uncertain, untrusting, and alone.

While I won’t ever say the disbelief is as bad as the abuse, it is, for me, second on my list of wounds I cannot heal, wounds that I live with, wounds that in the main lie dormant until something or someone picks the scabs off and they start bleeding again.

This time, Bolt, Devine and Brennan have torn the scabs off my wounds.  I know I’m not alone in this. I know there are many, many survivors right now reliving their own dark time of being disbelieved, because of what Bolt, Devine and Brennan have just done to us. I hope that everyone of us can remember that this too will pass. That while Bolt, Devine and Brennan may have caused us an anguish we do not ever deserve to feel, this is a temporary situation. We’ve got this far. They are less than nothing in the scheme of things. We have survived far worse than they can inflict on us and while their disregard and contempt for us mimics what we knew when we were young, it is only a pale, pale shadow, and we will prevail.

If you are reading this and you are suffering today, I send you love and strength and hope, from my bedroom where I’m holed up until this dark time passes.

Jennifer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Circular Ruins

24 Apr

Prince Quote

 

In an effort to rid myself yet again of the mother of all ear worms, Prince’s Purple Rain, I turned this morning to Jacqueline du Pré’s performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, which decision brought with it a whole other unanticipated spectrum of matters to do with grief and loss.

My late husband, Arnie, decided in his seventies to take up the cello. This was after the guitar and the ukulele, and contiguous with Hebrew lessons and teaching Shakespeare’s comedies at U3A.

His cello playing was excruciatingly awful, yet he bent to his task as if he were Yo-Yo Ma.

I can’t hear a cello without seeing Arnie, lost in the joyous experience of wresting music from the instrument, so engrossed in his mission as to be entirely oblivious to the tortuously mangled sound he actually produced.

There is the manner in which we mourn for the ones we loved but did not know, such as Prince, Bowie, and for me James Gandolfini whom I still miss, and when Leonard Cohen leaves I don’t know what I’ll do. And then there is the manner in which we grieve for our partners. The former is a but a pale imitation of  the latter, nevertheless, it has the power to evoke the devastating loss of far more powerful and intimate loves.

Each of us finds our own way to live with our grieving, because what else is there to do?  Yesterday I found myself re-reading a story by Jorge Luis Borges, The Circular Ruins, about a man who dreams a man, only to understand that he himself is the product of yet another man’s dream. Borges begins with a quote from Through the Looking Glass VI : And if he left off dreaming about you…

I read this story again because it was one that delighted Arnie, he read it to me many times. I wanted to read it through his eyes, I wanted to understand why it so delighted him.

I wanted to be with him again. Which of course, I can never be.

The enormity of loss and grief makes itself evident intermittently. Were it otherwise, it would be intolerable. We must get through this thing called life.

But if we leave off dreaming about them…?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down among the women

22 Mar

Raising sons like daughters

 

Our family’s four-year-old had his tonsils removed last week. We didn’t have much notice, there was an opening in the operating schedule and by Friday the wretched body parts that have plagued him for most of his short life were gone.

His dad had a long-standing arrangement to be away for the weekend. There’s a three-year-old, and six month-old Mabel Jane. So Mrs Chook and I went to the mountain to help out.

It’s quite some years since I’ve been in a women and young children only situation such as that one. I don’t want to start a gender war but the reality is, there’s a different vibe. For a start, everybody knew what to do without being asked. If there was washing, it got folded. If there was shopping someone went to the supermarket when a child was sleeping. When food was needed, somebody got it together. There was one woman for each child, a perfect ratio especially when a child is as sore and sorrowful as Archie.  I don’t know where I am, Giddy, he wept, as I lifted him out of the car when he came home.

There was always a hip available for Mabel Jane if she got fractious. There was someone to distract Ted when he claimed to be poorly and needing the doctor like his brother. The sick child spent the nights in his mother’s bed, while I slept in Ted’s room with the baby and Mrs Chook next door, and the broken sleep was shared around.

I don’t want to claim that only women can manage these things, or that all women can or want to manage these things. Neither am I claiming that men can’t do this kind of caring. What I am saying is that there was a particular connection between us that I’ve never experienced between women when a man is present. What I’m also saying is that this is a powerful and significant connection, and I don’t want us to ever lose our capacity for making it with each other.

I remember this connection from the time when my children were little. Hardly anyone in my female peer group had family available to help, so we assisted each other with reciprocal child care, and time out just to be alone. We got through long days with babies and toddlers by spending them together, women and children, at somebody’s home, in a park, at the local swimming pool. This is where I first learned to bond with women, and at the heart of our bonding was our love for our infants and our shared anxieties about being good mothers.

For me, these times down among the women were and are profoundly feminist experiences. I remain appalled at any feminism that denigrates or dismisses these experiences.

The problem is not the experience itself, but that society demands women carry most of the responsibility for childcare and domestic affairs, without remuneration, without relief and at unacceptable cost to the rest of our lives.  The burden these demands impose on us erodes our capacity for pleasurable connectivity, while denying men the opportunity to enjoy similar experiences.

For mine, sharing the care is fundamental to our species survival. Being down among the women is an experience that teaches almost everything humans need to know. It’s simple, but it isn’t easy.

You don’t have to be a biological parent. You do have to care. And of course you do have to imagine how things might be if sons were raised more like daughters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sisters

14 Mar
The Three Graces. Raphael

The Three Graces. Raphael

 

I have two sisters, well, half-sisters to be accurate: we share a mother and I have a different father.

There’s a considerable age difference between us: I’m fourteen years older than one, and ten years older than the other. Which means our mother was in different stages of her life when she birthed me from when she birthed them. Which means that the three of us have different mothers, and while two of us more or less agree on some of her characteristics, one of us describes her as significantly different from the mother two of us knew.

Interestingly, it is the middle daughter who denies the mother the eldest and the youngest describe.

This is one of the more intriguing aspects of family histories: how can people grow up with the same mother and have wildly conflicting stories? And whose narrative rules?

My youngest sister (who is also a writer ) and I have lately been exchanging emails on this topic of who *owns* family information. Everyone owns her subjective experience, we decided, and if a family member doesn’t agree they are at liberty to write or speak their subjective experience, but one thing that cannot be argued with is subjective experience.

Our mother died ten years ago, but still the disagreements about her character divide us. I live my daily life without much concern for matters about which I can do nothing, but now and again our differences erupt and I’m forced to acknowledge these family sorrows are far from settled.

My initial reaction to an eruption is to lose my temper with everyone because I don’t know how to not care about my sisters and it would be so much easier if I didn’t, and that makes me feel cornered.

But I changed their nappies. I was there when one tipped the other out of her pram and the baby was nearly strangled by the straps that held her in place. I took one on my first holiday with my first boyfriend. I don’t to this day understand how that happened.

One lived with me and my husband when living with our mother got too tricky. During that period, unknown to us, she nurtured weed in many pots hidden behind our garden shed.

I came home one day, eight and a half months pregnant with my second child, and found the house had been burgled. I rang the police who during their robbery investigation found the weed. I had no idea what to do, so while they sat in my kitchen questioning me I perched unsteadily on a stool, sneaking looks at the weed they’d brought in and making chocolate chip cookies.  Standing up was hard. The baby was ten pounds. It was a lot to lug around and at that point in my life I baked things to relieve stress.

We’ll wait till your husband gets here, the detectives said, obviously of the opinion that I was recklessly endangering my unborn child by smoking weed, and I suppose unused to pregnant suspects baking cookies during questioning but obliged by my girth to be tolerant.

Both sisters were present at the birth of this child, and one crouched between my legs and took the photos that are the most powerful images I own.

One of the sisters was then in a separatist feminist phase, and commiserated with me for having brought another male into the world while congratulating me on having eschewed the patriarchal domination of childbirth by giving birth at home.

The history. The love. The distance and the difference. Our subjective experiences with a mother who never wanted to be a mother. I don’t know how much our mothers’ lives determine our own, either in sympathy with or in reaction against. I can see both forces manifesting in our three lives, and I see that whether we fulfil our mothers’ dreams or react fiercely against them, in neither case are we free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogs. Mountains. And Writing.

17 Jan

Derrida

 

I emerged from my cave around eleven this morning, after spending the hours from dawn wrangling language and discovering to my immense satisfaction that I’m some 25,000 plus words  into the book I’m writing.

The household was in disarray. Three dogs were lined up outside the glass door that opens onto the verandah, gazing sorrowfully into the kitchen. J, in high dudgeon, told me that the youngest, an Australian Shepherd born without a tail, had found a hole in the fence through which she scrambled into the next property, and then proceeded to chase Farmer Pete’s brown cows all over the paddock.

J managed to get her back, gave her a good slap on the snout and thought that was the end of the matter. But all three dogs, the others border collies, had different plans. The next time J looked over the verandah they were obviously stalking something. She took off down the hill to see what the hell they were up to. They’d stalked and caught a large lizard, and were torturing it to death. She hauled them off and whacked the lot of them, then found she’d have to destroy the poor lizard, who was too badly injured to be left to live. So she found a rock, and did the deed, and buried it under a cairn of stones so the damn dogs can’t do anything else to it.

By this point in the telling, J was in tears. I looked at the dogs through the glass door. This is why you can’t have nice things, I mouthed at them. They wagged their tails at me, except the youngest who hasn’t got one, and she waggled her whole bottom. It was as if I’d mouthed, you are the most beautiful dogs in the entire universe, which is something I might well have said before this morning.

I’m writing this on the verandah, pausing now and then to look at the Snowy Mountains and Lake Jindabyne in the foreground. Three dogs are sleeping around me and I think every one of them is farting. I have no idea what’s going on in the world outside this minuscule part of it, and I don’t much care. I’ve just done a food and drink run into Jindabyne, as that seemed the most useful thing I could contribute at this point.  J is now running a fever, which is a change from me running a fever. There are HUGE flies up here, and yesterday when I was walking by the Thredbo river I stopped for a bush wee and they bit me on the arse. J said they’re March flies. I said what the hell are March flies doing out in January and she said that question was stupid.

I have just re-read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she describes the demented state of mind she experienced after the sudden death of her husband during her daughter’s life-threatening illness. I’m only now beginning to see that the state I experienced after my husband’s death was, actually, demented. Nobody tells you this about grief. Nobody says, you may become demented, you might find yourself doing all kinds of extraordinary things you’ve never done before and you won’t even realise you’re doing them and that’s because grief can make you demented. Well, everybody ought to read Joan Didion’s account of it and prepare themselves. Society does not deal well with the demented bereaved. After the ashes are scattered or the coffin laid in the ground you’re supposed to move on because nobody knows what to do with you. Well, fuck that for a joke.

Now I’ve just eaten a lunch of ripe organic Brie, snow peas, tiny sweet tomatoes and green olives, followed by the most luscious cherries I’ve tasted in years for dessert. J is sleeping. There are thunder clouds building up over the mountains. There are 25,000 more words clamouring to be written. I’m on a deadline. Talk soon.

 

Books. And empty shoes.

28 Dec

Buccholz. Book

 

I am culling books… 

When I come upon a collection of essays by J.M. Coetzee titled Stranger Shores, that I haven’t looked at in quite some time and so had forgotten that it was given to me by my late husband, Arnie, on my birthday, March 15 2005. It contains a piece on Rainer Maria Rilke that sent me gratefully back to the poet, in the way that good essays always invite you somewhere beyond themselves.

The sight of Arnie’s handwriting initially startles, then its power to evoke the man takes over and I’m again lost in that peculiar presence of absence I’ve become familiar with since his death eighteen months ago, in which his absence has an energy vivid as any presence, and more vivid than some presences can ever be.

I’m reminded here of a conversation between myself and a woman in which she confided, in distress and anger, that her husband of some decades didn’t know her. I thought I’d seldom heard anything so sad about a partnership, and how lonely it must be to live a life in which one is not known, a life in which interest and curiosity in a partner is supplanted by assumptions and projections, and the familiarity that breeds contempt.

Not that it’s possible to conclusively know anyone: it’s the desire to engage in the project of discovery that speaks to me of enduring love. I’ve written more about the difference between familiarity and knowing here.

On the first page of Stranger Shores, Arnie has written of his love and affection in Hebrew. At least I’m assuming it’s love and affection as I know little of that language, and there’s what I’m taking to be a translation below the Hebrew that speaks in English of “my beloved wife.”

On the other hand, knowing him, the Hebrew could say anything.

The next thing I think of as I gaze at his spidery handwriting, held in place in my chair by the strength of the presence of his absence, is the haunting image of the empty shoes in Paris.

Empty shoes in Paris. 2015

The empty shoes represent an event that could not be held because of fear of terrorist attacks. They represent the dead and injured victims of those attacks. They symbolise the death of species, and the dying of our planet. They represent loss, and absence of all kinds. They symbolise the grounding of humans on this earth, a major point of contact with the planet, and they are empty.

And they remind me of how the sight of my husband’s empty shoes brought me to my knees, when I finally understood that I would never again see him in them.

I don’t know why shoes apparently carry so much more poignancy than say shirts, or jackets, or trousers. Yet, I remember also when my sons were small and at school how I would pick up their scattered clothing and smell it, to evoke their presence in their absence, a kind of preparation for the time when they would leave for their own lives and loves, and that intense period of mothering, about which I was frequently ambivalent, would be over.

There are other books “For my beloved wife.” One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty. Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Which book I remember him lugging to the hospital on Christmas Day where I lay recovering from drastic cancer surgery, too weakened to even hold the heavy tome, so he showed it to me instead, and read bits that fed my morphine-induced hallucinations and after he left I saw Jesus by the window in shining light, telling me everything would be fine, no worries.

I’m beginning to understand that the people I love never leave me, if I can only learn to allow them to stay. There’s a psychological theory that when we know we can’t be with someone anymore, for whatever reason, we cut off from them and deny their significance, as a way of managing in the long-term the complicated and initially crushing pain of loss.

It’s a sweet sorrow to be sure, to feel the presence of absence, whether that’s the absence of the dead, or the equally irretrievable loss of the little boy who is now a man, and quite rightly does not have need of you in the same ways any longer. They live, those vanished ones, in the memory and the imagination, they live in the body and the heart and the mind. They live in me, though I can’t touch them anymore, and their shoes stand so very empty.

The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you. Rainer Maria Rilke

On Family.

15 Dec
Mabel Jane with her Great Step Grandfather

Mabel Jane with her Step Great Grandfather

 

The next little while is set to be somewhat frenetic in our household, as in many others, as we prepare for an early Christmas with my family’s little ones, and then a Christmas at the other end of life’s cycle with Mrs Chook’s ninety-year-old Mum and family.

Mrs Chook didn’t have kids and I don’t have a Mum, so we share.

There won’t be much on Sheep, except maybe some bleating about four-year-old Archie’s snoring, sleep talking and aggravated assault of his Giddy after he’s padded his way down the stairs from his bedroom to mine in the middle of the night  and in a stage whisper said “Giddy, can I get in your bed I promise I won’t pee.”

Well, he doesn’t pee, but he does thrash about and hit me in the eye.

A woman called Vicki once said to me, family is everything. I know she was talking about traditional heterosexual families. But for mine, that is a very narrow concept of family, and the fact that it’s heterosexual and traditional is no guarantee of it being any good.

It doesn’t matter how family is constituted: if there’s a group of people who love each other and share their lives, that’s a family. It’s about time this privileging of traditional heterosexual families came to an end.

My extended and blended family recently came together for the naming of our youngest babies, Mabel Jane, called after her late great-grandmother, and her cousin, Audrey Mae.

Mabel Jane & Audrey Mae on their naming day

Audrey Mae & Mabel Jane on their naming day

Mabel Jane brings the total number of grandchildren in this family to twenty. There are second marriages and ex partners and new partners and we all turn up for every wedding and naming and we all get on, regardless of our sometimes chequered histories, and we even get on when we’re pissed, so that’s some indication of how our family is everything to us.

 

Ted at his sister's naming day

Ted at his sister’s naming day

 

What astonishes me is the elasticity of the human heart, as it expands itself to make room for yet one more individual, adult or child, who through birth or commitment enters this family and becomes a member. We may not always like each other all of the time, and some of us wouldn’t want to spend our lives with some of us, but I doubt there’s any one of us who’d turn their back if someone  else was in trouble.

This is not to say some families aren’t shit. My family of origin was unspeakable, so there’s a dark side to the “family is everything” mantra: family can be everything in the worst possible way, haunting you for the rest of your life, and under those circumstances, Christmas is no fun.

If it’s awful I hope with all my heart that it passes quickly for you.

And no matter what combination constitutes your family, however big or small it may be, love one another the best you can, and put the all sharp implements in the high cupboards.

Archie at the party

Archie at the party

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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