Elly McDonald

Writer


Leave a comment

Such Small Hands (2017) by Andres Barba translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman

Such_Small_Hands

Edmund White states in his Afterword that in this slim novella, Such Small Hands, Spanish writer Andres Barba “has returned us to the nightmare of childhood”.

Maybe it’s a Spanish thing. Of the many pop culture associations that sprang to my mind reading Such Small Hands, perhaps the closest is the 2006 Spanish film Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno), written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Pan’s Labyrinth is as dark a nightmare of childhood as I could ever accommodate.

Truth to tell, I find myself pushing away this small book because it’s just too dark.

I find myself dismissing it as a kind of party trick, a Halloween party trick. Very clever, very skilled. Very scary. Nothing to do with me or mine.

If I were an agent, pitching this tale, I’d pitch it as an all-girl Lord of the Flies set in an orphanage, meets Courtney Love singing Doll Parts. Meets Euripides’ The Bacchae.

Plus Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

With that scene from Barbarella with the vicious dolls. And Anita Pallenberg as the Grand Tyrant.

Got it?

I’m not an agent, and some things get under my skin.

This tale is apparently based on a real-life incident in an orphanage in Brazil in about 1960. The presenting circumstance is that a child is orphaned: a child loses her parents. With her parents, she loses her protections in life. Much as the child did in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Wake up you sleepy head
Put on some clothes, shake up your bed
Put another log on the fire for me
I’ve made some breakfast and coffee
Look out my window what do I see
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me
All the nightmares came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay
[…]
I think about a world to come
Where the books were found by the golden ones
Written in pain, written in awe
By a puzzled man who questioned
What we were here for
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay

David Bowie, 1971, Oh You Pretty Things


Leave a comment

Review: The Stranger (2017) by Melanie Raabe – Die Falle, translated from the German by Imogen Taylor

The_Stranger_Melanie_RaabeWhat if your spouse went missing for seven years then apparently returns – only it’s not him, and this person who claims to be the man you loved appears to have a mysterious, vindictive agenda?

I sat up past midnight gulping this book, forgetting I had work the next day.

I didn’t plan to write a full review, mostly because I can’t do that without spoilers.

Suffice to say, on the best seller, airport reading level, essentially it’s a nightmare, gender-reversed version of the Hollywood staple My Favorite Wife/Something’s Gotta Give/Move Over Darling, though the author casts it in terms of classic dark folk tales, primarily Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. There are chips of ice in the heart. Lost love. Dark woods and winding paths.

On serious levels, it’s a meditation on love, guilt, and memory. On marriage. With Radiohead as its soundtrack. (The beloved also loved Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Tom Waits. There might be an echo of Orpheus and Eurydice here.)

The novel is rich in allusions: The Return of Martin Guerre, the 1982 French film starring Gerard Depardieu, based on a sixteenth-century incident. Sommersby, the 1993 Hollywood remake starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere. Homer’s Penelope and Odysseus. The scar on Odysseus’s thigh, the testimony of the aged dog, the knowingness of the marital bed.

Is this man who returns to Sarah, Philip? (The names are significant: Phil being the ancient Greek etymology for ‘love; lover’; Sarah meaning ‘princess’, which was Philip’s nickname for her. There is also the shadow figure, Vincent. Vincent means ‘conqueror’.) Is this man her husband? Or is he a psychopath? Or is this stranger both?

I kept thinking of Hamlet. Hamlet is on a mission of revenge. He is fuelled with righteous rage, based on his belief in murder, conspiracy and betrayal. Yet Hamlet is uncertain. Uncertainty stays his hand. Who is this woman, this woman he claims as his wife?

When I outlined this plot to my sister, she insisted even after twenty years apart she could never not recognise her husband. She could never confuse her husband with a stranger. No ambiguity.

Melanie Raabe stacks the decks to create a plausible context. But her central inquiry – who is the person I married? who is the person I claim to love? – resonates broadly.

I’m not so certain myself.

Melanie_Raabe

Melanie Raabe

 


1 Comment

Mayhem: a memoir (2017) by Sigrid Rausing

Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing

Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing early in their marriage

The eye of the storm is a locked bedroom: it stinks, drug paraphernalia and littered clothes strewn about, drug dealers’ phone numbers penned on the walls. At the very centre is someone who is now dead.

That much is common to many drug tragedies. Flung from the storm’s centre are children, four of them, primary school aged. Clutching for the children are adults, siblings and parents of the drug-affected pair; and spiralling out from the distraught adults are lawyers, police, specialist doctors, psychoanalysts, rehab staff, staff at the children’s schools, distressed friends, well-wishers, haters, readers of mass circulation tabloids, writers and directors and stagers of operas, casual internet trawlers and readers of this book.

Mayhem.

… an old English term for the crime of maiming. The term implies guilt, which is appropriate in this context, since there is no addict story that doesn’t revolve around guilt, shame and judgement. The guilt is indiscriminate, and so is the shame. We were all guilty, and none of us were guilty. We were all shamed, and we absorbed the shame.

Sigrid Rausing’s account of her brother’s and sister-in-law’s drug addictions, and the havoc wreaked by addiction, is at its centre not so very different from every other addict story. The story has some sensational embellishments that made it a public scandal. It could be ripped from the pages of a Stieg Larsson thriller: The Girl with the Flaming Stigma. It’s also made distinctive by how extraordinary Rausing’s writing is, by how painstakingly she steers her course between restraint and suppressed fury, by how intelligently she attempts to analyse and contain the issues and emotions stirred up by the cyclone that is addiction.

Rausing’s account is many things.

If you do not tell your stories others will tell them for you, and they will vulgarize and degrade you, said Ishmael Reed, quoting George Bernard Shaw.

I write, know that writing at all may be seen as a betrayal of family; a shaming, exploitative, act [how much do I love that extra comma]. Anyone reading this who thinks so, please know that I thought it before you. Anyone who thinks so, consider also how we were brought up: wealth, privacy, silence, discretion.

But someone died, early one morning or late one night.

When someone dies this way, must someone wear the guilt?

The story, its centre, can be schematised:

Hans Kristian Rausing, an heir to the TetraPak fortune, worth billions, develops a heroin addiction at age 19 or 20 on the beaches of Goa, in India.

Years later, in rehab, he meets a fellow recovering addict named Eva Kemeny. They marry, have four children, lead a drug-free life as wealthy philanthropists funding addiction recovery programs.

Eight years after their wedding, Eva and Hans celebrate the new millennium on New Years Eve 2000 with a glass or several of champagne. It is the end of their sobriety. The next 12 years are a whirlwind that tears their lives apart, culminating in that death in that bedroom in July 2012.

Should I say more?

I can only imagine the shame, the pain, Sigrid Rausing must have felt putting words to what happened.

The Rausings, Hans and Eva, had lived in a mansion in Cadogan Place, in Belgravia, possibly the most exclusive and expensive location in London. The mansion was maintained impeccably by their staff – except for the bedroom on the second level, the epicentre of the couple’s drug world, forbidden to all others.

When Eva died, sometime either late at night or before dawn, Hans was present, but could not cope with her death. Instead of reporting her death and ensuring proper procedures were followed, he heaped clothes, doonas, TV sets on her body, wrapped it in a blue tarpaulin, apparently sprinkled it with baby powder (to absorb the smell?), and continued in his drug nightmare until two months later, when some police officers stopped his car on Wandsworth Bridge, searched the car, found drugs, searched his home under warrant, and found Eva.

She was identified by a partial thumb print and by the pacemaker implanted six years earlier to support her damaged heart muscle.

Eva’s immediate cause of death was determined to be heart failure caused by inhaling crack cocaine. Hans Kristian was charged with preventing Eva’s lawful burial. He was sentenced to two years, suspended, with the requirement that he undergo a two-year rehabilitation program.

Then things took a weird(er) turn. Eva had been in communication with journalists and police in Sweden, claiming Hans’s father, Hans Rausing Snr, had ordered the hit on Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, who was fatally shot after a night at the cinema in 1986.

Eva was very often irrational across those years of relapse, sending threatening, quite psychotic emails and texts to Sigrid (and others?) with a frequency and degree of implied violence that constitutes harassment. She wrote in her texts and emails that she was omniscient, omnipotent; she hurled black magic curses. The investigative journalist to whom she sent her accusations against Rausing Snr did not publicly disclose Eva’s allegations until after her death, suspecting they were unreliable, not least because Eva admitted she had gained her information through a revelatory dream, a vision she admitted was not her first.

In a letter to a jailed killer she wrote

One morning, I woke up and looked over at my husband, who was asleep, and I swear, the thought came to me loud and clear. […] I’m scared. What I think that they could do is come into the house, gas me with some sort of sleeping gas, then they could deliberately give me an overdose of some drug or other and then, worst of all, they leave a note in what looks like my handwriting. Help! I know this sounds very far-fetched and completely paranoid but I swear to you these people are capable of anything.

Swedish police made no comment, as is their policy with ongoing investigations. In Sweden, where there is no statute of limitation, all investigations are officially ongoing.

In Sweden, Eva’s revelations were incendiary.

The background is complicated – changes in Swedish legislation in the 1970s and early ‘80s that proposed unions buy increasing shares in privately owned companies to become majority stakeholders – but Sigrid Rausing is adamant:

Eva’s idea, therefore, that Olof Palme had constituted a threat against the company may have been true in the 1970s, but by 1986 it certainly wasn’t true any more. And every newspaper editor in Sweden knew that.

It was Nordic noir, Scandi noir, at its blackest. In 2016 an opera was staged in Sweden with Hans Kristian and Eva centre stage, Sigrid, her siblings and her parents presented as agents of doom. The director sent a copy of the libretto to the family for comment.

The charge against Sigrid and her sister, Lisbeth, is that they took the children. Sigrid took the children; Eva couldn’t live with that and so she died.

Much of Mayhem is Sigrid wrestling with issues of guilt. Trained as a social anthropologist, a longtime proponent of psychoanalysis, Sigrid thinks like a philosopher. She worries away at issues of guilt, of culpability, of agency, from every angle she can conceive of. She is insightful, intellectual, intuitive. She is devastated.

One thing she never traces in her writing is the possibility that the children could have remained with their parents. Could that have made the difference? Could that have benefited the children, saved Eva Rausing?

Eva always believed so, and so, apparently, did Eva’s parents.

Could those four young children have lived downstairs in that mansion in Cadogan Place, maybe gone to boarding school, maybe as week-day boarders, cared for by staff, visited by relatives – and all would have been well?

Could those young children have been kept innocent of the darkness at the centre of that house, the room that was their parents’?

Sigrid and Lisbeth spent 2007/08 in court with lawyers arguing the case that this wasn’t possible. Courts are loathe to remove children from their parents, from their home. Yet the courts determined the children could no longer live with these parents.

The court action was prompted by a report from Social Services after Hans Kristian dropped out of yet another attempt at rehab. Social Services had informed Sigrid and Lisbeth that action would be taken to protect the children, and that if the children were taken into care by the state, the four siblings would most likely be split up.

Sigrid had been a director of the NSPCC – Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She knew what this meant.

Mayhem is

Dedicated to Hans and Eva’s four children. For legal reasons, they cannot be named in this book. That is one of the many reasons why the text remains as partial and unfinished as it is, since these young people, alongside my own son Daniel, were, and are, an indelible part of my life.

I thank them for their patience, their humour and their courage.

Sigrid Rausing

Sigrid Rausing


Leave a comment

Review: Idaho (2017) by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho_Emily_Ruskovich_Elly_McDonald_WriterOn a mountain-top in rural Idaho, a mother kills her 6 year old, in a seemingly impulsive, reflex action. She “waived her right to a trial, entered a plea of guilty, and, in a hearing that lasted twenty minutes was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after thirty years. During this hearing, the judge seemed to find her lack of self-regard unsettling, her adamant plea of guilt unusual. He pressured her to give an explanation, but she only said she had committed the murder of her child and she wished to die for it.”

Thirty-two years later, word in the Sage Hill Women’s Correctional Center is that Jenny told the judge: “I wish that you would kill me. But I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish.”

Word in the women’s prison is that during the sentencing, Jenny’s “husband didn’t look at her, not once.”

lacuna

ləˈkjuːnə/

noun

plural noun: lacunae

  1. 1.

an unfilled space; a gap.

  1. 2.

ANATOMY

a cavity or depression, especially in bone.

Jenny is, simultaneously, the lacuna at the heart of this book, an emptiness of the heart; and Jenny is the heart of this book. Jenny is Schroedinger’s cat: When you open the box, the cat is either alive or it is dead; when the box is closed, reality is unknowable, paradoxical possibilities exist.

”Wade,” she says, “You break my heart.”

And you break mine,’” he answers.

By no coincidence, stray cats, missing cats, feature as a narrative motif, and Schroedinger’s cat is referenced.

After poetry class in jail, Jenny writes a note to her cellmate:

D says this poem in I’ams almost whole way through. Where meter breaks free (see where I circled the phrases he pointed out), imagine a voice breaking too. Form and content intertwined. (People seem to know what I-am means. I assume “first person point of view.”)

Later, she reports: “An I-am is a pair of syllables. The first one soft, the second loud. It’s the rhythm of the human heart, which is also the natural rhythm of human speech.”

Idaho is a meticulously crafted text, thesis material in its density but highly readable. It’s a narrative of paired ‘syllables’, a narrative of people bonded as pairs: husband and wife, parent and child, sibling with sibling, cellmate with cellmate. Every heartbeat of this story reminds us it takes two. The pair at the centre of this story are twin enigmas: the mother, Jenny, because like Christ before Pilate she refuses to explain, or even speak; the father, Wade, because like his father and his grandfather before him, Wade has younger onset dementia, his memory disintegrating while he’s physically hale, his life expectancy no more than his mid-50s, the awareness of darkness and death his life-long shroud.

Yet, the song of the heartbeat is I AM: the assertion of self.

The uber-I AM is of course God, G-d, Jehovah: the Old Testament God who declaimed I AM THAT I AM, who instructed Moses on a mountain-top, who ordered Abraham to kill his child. At one point a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses visit Ann and Wade on their mountain (Iris Mountain, a mountain seeded with wild irises, Iris in Greek mythology being a female messenger of the gods). I don’t think that’s coincidence, either.

Jenny pushes away I AM and has chosen self-abnegation: “I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish” – not even this wish. For Jenny, “Silence is something she can bear a little better than a failed attempt at saying what she means.”

Wade has lost much, is losing everything. But, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum, perhaps most dramatically enacted in a wilderness, on a wild mountain, and it is the human way to make meaning even out of absences and silences, to try to reconstruct significant events.

Idaho is constructed as a series of first person narratives, and through those first person points of view we see how driven the human heart is to construe events so that, ultimately, we, the storytellers, the first person narrators, are at the heart of the matter, at the centre of the story, and the story becomes ours.

And so it is that Jenny’s story is appropriated by the woman Wade marries after Jenny makes herself an absence, a woman who in her imagination projects such a vivid, sensual scenarios that ultimately she feels herself to be the sole custodian of this family’s story:

She knows from [Wade’s] casual gestures, from the simplicity of his smile, the absence of pain, that she has inherited his family wholly now, that nothing can bring them back.

For the first time, she knows for certain that they live only in her.

This woman, Ann, is a good woman, believes herself to be a good woman. Yet eventually she convinces herself that she is the reason the child was killed, convinces herself that she is guilty, through a kind of lovers’ telepathy, an osmosis through the medium of music. She believes herself guilty, too, of the death of a fawn, merely by her touch:

Had she known, when she reached out afterward, so softly, with just one fingertip, that she could do it harm? […] she thought of wiping the fawn with a wet cloth. But the cloth had a smell, too, of detergent. And so there was nothing she could do. […] Periodically that evening she forgot it, and then when she remembered, her fingertip tingled at the memory of that white spot, like peppermint. She thought of those woods at night. Wade had mentioned seeing a mountain lion before, not up here but down at the river, leaping right out of the water. So they were around. Coyotes, wolves. All those dark branches and dark trunks of trees and the fawn moving in the dark. Invisible except in one place, one white spot: Ann’s fingerprint moving through the woods like a point of light. Here I am!

Jenny is appropriated, too, to an extent, by the cellmate her comes to love her, who sees Jenny as her saviour and who, through a Cyrano de Bergerac act of ventriloquism,* eventually procures Jenny’s ‘freedom’.

Paradoxically, this cellmate is driven to violence by the paranoid perception that her previous cellmate had appropriated her history:

“It’s fitting that I stabbed her with her own mirror. That’s what they call in my poetry class ‘dramatic irony’.”

He says, in a dull tone to mock her, “You mean because she was stealing your childhood.”

“Childhood, soul, whatever you want to call it.”

“A person can’t steal someone else’s childhood.”

(But they can. Killing a child steals that childhood.)

When this cellmate, Elizabeth, again encounters the ex-cellmate she stabbed, Sylvia, she looks at her as a dominant, abusive partner looks at their object of abuse and wonders, ”Who is she now, without Elizabeth?”

Who is Wade, without his children?

Who is Ann, the second wife, if not a young woman with an empty life who found meaning as a medium channelling the ghost of someone else’s tragedy?

And who is June?

June is the other gaping absence in this tale.

When the six year old was murdered on a mountain, her nine year old sister, June, saw, and ran, like a fawn in the dark woods. She has never been seen since, except as a series of photographs issued every few years through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, showing how that nine year old might look at 11, at 13, at 15, at 20. Ann has commissioned an artist whose vocation it is to construct ‘living’ images of absent children, to paint how June might look at different ages, in different contexts, living different personae. Is this another appropriation?

There is a character, Eliot, whose function is both to provide a living link to June and to show how hollow, how filled with the breath of hope, Ann’s life was before June’s sister’s murder.

Eliot has his own story – or he thinks he has. He tells his story often, dramatically, to assert his I AM. Then one day, his girlfriend throws in a different interpretation, and Eliot cannot live with it, can no longer live with her:

But with a casual shrug of her sholders, Ivy had changed his story. She changed the people in it. The intensity had not followed him – he followed it. […] He had become a passive player in the opening scene of his life.

And if Ivy could make him feel that in one careless instant, what else was she capable of taking away?”

At the heart of Idaho, our own private Idahos, is the question, can our stories hold? Can we ‘own’ our stories? Can we clutch them to ourselves, can we protect and keep them private?

Elizabeth’s injured ex-cellmate finds herself through music, through a reconnection with the piano.

Elizabeth wonders, “If music can live in Sylvia’s fingers for sixteen years without ever revealing itself, are there things that live in Elizabeth that time won’t touch, that nobody can take away?”

At the novel’s end, when it might appear Ann has given ‘back’ Jenny’s life, there’s a disturbing final paragraph. We think we know this story now. The basics were never in dispute:

“My wife has killed my daughter in the truck. My other daughter is scared. I need to get to her.”

It was the lack of ambiguity that made William stumble. […]

So Wade tried again. “My wife has killed my daughter.”

He was about to say it a third time when William managed a reply. […] “I understand. You’ve told me what happened.”

Do we, as outsiders, ever know the story?

In the novel’s last lines,

Jenny says, “On a different part of this river, I saw a mountain lion leap right up, right out of the water. It was the only time I ever saw one.”

“I know that story,” Ann says. “I didn’t know you were there, too. Wade told me.”

“He did?” Jenny smiles, surprised. ‘What else did he tell you?”

Ann isn’t sure what Jenny means. Jenny seems not to be sure, either. She laughs a little, for the first time.

0812 tm emily ruskovich rabbits

Emily Ruskovich with rabbits

 

*Elizabeth’s act of written ventriloquism follows many years of literary ventriloquism, with roles reversed, with Jenny attending poetry class as Elizabeth’s proxy and handing in assignments written by Elizabeth under Jenny’s name. There’s so much in this novel to connect and unpick.

 

 

 

 

 


Leave a comment

#MeToo and the angry women

uma-thruman-you-tube_650x400_61509875594

I don’t remember the joke now but the punchline was something like “I’m long and thick and I come fast”.

The joker was my boss. I was his assistant. The mediator our company provided when I made a formal complaint began by explaining he was internal to the company and had worked with my boss previously on leadership trainings and was his mentor, but that there was no conflict of interest. He then explained to me that a boss-assistant relationship is like a marriage: it was my job to make it work.

He asked me why I persisted with my complaint – my complaints. Why didn’t I just find another job? I explained it was 2008, it was the middle of a GFC (Global Financial Crisis, for those with short memories), and as a 47 year old single woman with no savings I was not about to voluntarily resign and make myself unemployed just because my boss was a jerk.

I voluntarily resigned and made myself unemployed.

I am reminded of this farcical episode in my employment history by the current #MeToo debates on social media. Anyone who’s read other blog posts by me knows gender politics is my recurring theme, and that a number of my memoir blog posts engage with workplace and institutional sexual politics. I am now revisiting my blog posts adding in a new Category: Gender politics.

I’m particularly gripped by the recent upsurge of debate about women and anger. (Note: additional new Category?) How do women express anger? How can women express anger? Is an angry woman automatically an hysterical woman, an irrational woman, an ugly woman? Is she a turn-off? If we turn off, is there some way she can make her case heard?

Australian novelist Charlotte Wood wrote an excellent piece about women and anger for The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/18/charlotte-wood-were-told-female-anger-is-finding-its-moment-but-i-cant-trust-it?CMP=soc_567

There was also an excellent piece in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/11/all-the-angry-ladies/545042/

2007 Young Australian Muslim of the Year and 2010 Young Queenslander of the Year Yassmin Abdel-Magied – who in 2012 was also awarded Young Leader of the Year in the Australian Financial Review and Westpac’s inaugural 100 Women of Influence Awards and was an InStyle ‘Cultural Leader’ and a Marie Claire Woman of the Future, and subsequently honoured as Youth of the Year in the Australian Muslim Achievement Awards – has faced the consequences of expressing anger publicly.

She writes about the blowback in her autobiography, Yassmin’s Story (Penguin Random House 2016), published at age 24: https://www.penguin.com.au/books/yassmins-story-9780857986177

Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard did a classic angry woman speech in parliament in 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOPsxpMzYw4

Yesterday while I was filing for my current boss (male), we commented on our mutual admiration for Gillian Triggs, former professor at the Melbourne Law School, former Dean of the Sydney Law School (Challis Professor of International Law 2007-2012), Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner of Australia’s Human Rights Commission 2012/2013, till 2017 President of the HRC, currently the Acting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

My boss and I were present when Professor Triggs spoke last month about how as a woman she’s perceived it necessary to present a studied veneer of rational calm, even when discussing egregious human rights abuses.

Yesterday I told my boss I see Professor Triggs, along with Hillary Clinton, as one of my “Elizabeth I women”:

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” (attributed to Queen Elizabeth I of England addressing her troops at Tilbury, on the eve of the expected Spanish armada invasion)

Hillary Clinton writes about this carapace of calm and rationality in her most recent book, What Happened. https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/tag/hillary-clinton/

In her book Clinton never mentions the characterization of Claire Underwood in the U.S. Netflix series House of Cards. I always wondered how actors who are publicly Democrat activists could collude in a fictionalized hatchet job on the Democrats’ best recent prospect for presidential election. But then, political journalist Joe Klein already did that number on Hillary, back in 1996, with his roman a clef Primary Colors, which painted Hillary as an abusive, conscienceless harpy. Guess nobody likes an angry woman, huh?

Promoting her book, Clinton unleashed years of pent-up anger:

http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/hillary-clinton:-the-interview/9055256

But for me, the most rivetting expression of women’s anger in the current #MeToo furore is Uma Thurman’s initial response on being questioned about Harvey Weinstein, her producer in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrWG6UmqkBw&feature=youtu.be

What I find most interesting about Thurman’s initial response is her awareness of how her anger might be heard and her willingness to take responsibility for the expression of her anger.

Famously, Uma’s father is the prominent Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. It’s not inconceivable Uma’s response to public questioning owes something to Buddhist teachings, such as those expounded by Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Anger: Wisdom for cooling the flames.

Thay (as Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers call him) views the unmindful expression of anger as analagous to pouring gasoline on fire. Social scientists back him up: research suggests that when we “rehearse” anger – that is, when uncontrolled expression of anger is our habitual recourse – anger becomes our default. Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, is not a useful mode for problem-solving or bridge-building. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings influenced Martin Luther King’s advocacy of non-violent protest during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Thich Nhat Hanh promoted non-violence – in thought, word and deed – as the basis for workable peace talks during the Vietnam War.

Through this Buddhist lens, it’s not that we’re not entitled to our anger, it’s not that our anger is not justified – it’s the pragmatic issue, how does our anger serve us in this situation? Does it energise us to pursue justice and equity in productive ways? Does it help clarify the issues for us and others? Does it inspire and engage?

If the answers are yes, go right ahead: anger is working for you.

If on the other hand anger consumes us and immobilizes, cancels us out of the conversation, creates barriers to solutions, then maybe we might reconsider how best to get our objectives met, to best serve our cause.

It doesn’t need to involve un-sexing ourselves (like Lady Macbeth), or becoming an Elizabeth I woman, if being an Elizabeth I impairs us.

You don’t have to buy it. But here, for interest, are some words by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Anger is an unpleasant feeling. It is like a blazing flame that burns up our self-control and causes us to say and do things that we regret later. When someone is angry, we can see clearly that he or she is abiding in hell. Anger and hatred are the materials from which hell is made. […]

When we are angry, we are not usually inclined to return to ourselves [i.e. to remain aware]. We want to think about the person who is making us angry, to think about his hateful aspects—his rudeness, dishonesty, cruelty, maliciousness, and so on. The more we think about him, listen to him, or look at him, the more our anger flares. […]

It is best if we do not listen to or look at the person whom we consider to be the cause of our anger. Like a fireman, we have to pour water on the blaze first and not waste time looking for the one who set the house on fire.“Breathing in, I know that I am angry. Breathing out, I know that I must put all my energy into caring for my anger.” So we avoid thinking about the other person, and we refrain from doing or saying anything as long as our anger persists. If we put all our mind into observing our anger, we will avoid doing any damage that we may regret later.

When we are angry, our anger is our very self. To suppress or chase it away is to suppress or chase away our self. When we are joyful, we are the joy. When we are angry, we are the anger. When anger is born in us, we can be aware that anger is an energy in us, and we can accept that energy in order to transform it into another kind of energy.

Then again. In my own life, there’s not a great distance between how Charlotte Wood writes, in her novel, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin 2016), and how I wrote, on the same themes. Tea, anyone?

https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2016/01/14/tea-2012/


1 Comment

Crime and punishment – #TorF #NaturalJustice

recidivist_ii_by_jehkoba

Yesterday something bizarre happened.

Or, something I’d ordinarily think of as bizarre, but is perhaps no longer so out of the ordinary, so that ordinarily must be re-thought.

In fact, so no longer out of the ordinary that it happened twice in 24 hours, the second time a variant echo late last night.

What happened: someone I know made an allegation of criminal behavior against someone else I know.

During the day, I was witness when a person I know, who I dislike, entered the workplace of another person I know, who I do like, and attempted to report my friend as a criminal.

The person making this allegation felt it necessary to warn my friend’s employer, and made their approach where bystanders – such as myself – could overhear.

Then late last night a longtime friend of mine made an accusation on my Facebook page about another longtime friend of mine. (I will not specify the nature of the accusations or the genders of either accusers or accused. I will not state details that could identify accusers or accused in either incident.)*

Let’s take a moment to consider the first incident, the workplace denouncement.

There are a range of obvious possible rational responses – leaving, for the moment, emotional responses. I’m no lawyer, but sometimes I think Vulcan. On the question of guilt or innocence:

  • My friend is guilty as accused and has been proved guilty in a court of law. In this case, my friend has been sentenced by a judge and has fulfilled the terms of that sentence. In which case, I have always understood – ordinarily – that the debt to society has been paid, and the slate is wiped clean. I also understand this particular workplace runs police checks on all personnel. If my friend has a criminal record, the employer already knows.
  • My friend is guilty but has not stood accused in a court of law. Either accusations were not reported to police or the crown prosecutor determined allegations were not sufficiently supported by evidence for reasonable prospects of a guilty verdict under law.
  • My friend is guilty but has been acquitted in court.
  • My friend is not guilty and a not guilty verdict has been delivered in court.
  • My friend is not guilty and has never been formally charged.
  • My friend is not guilty and is subject to slander.
  • My friend is not guilty and is unaware s/he is being publicly accused.
  • My friend’s guilt or innocence is none of my business.
  • My friend’s guilt or innocence at this point is nobody’s business but their own.

I recall many years ago sitting at an outdoor café table by the fountain in Kings Cross, chatting with a man who was an active advocate of improving jail conditions and providing employment for ex-prisoners. A man passing by recognized my friend and, identifying himself as an ex-con, stopped to thank him.

My friend invited the ex-con to join us. It emerged in conversation the ex-con had served 8 years jail-time.

I recall my chain of thought: the immediate conclusion that 8 years served (assuming time off for parole) represented a major crime, probably a crime against a person – assault, or armed robbery or rape. I was discomfited at the thought I was seated at a table with a convicted rapist or shotgun wielder, someone who had damaged another person violently.

And yet – I’d done things in my life that harmed other people, things which at that time were not legal crimes but which, with changed legislation, now are. I felt – and I feel – immense remorse, and I am forever grateful I was not placed in a dock, did not end up in jail, and have been the beneficiary of forgiveness.

Recently I read a memoir by one of Australia’s foremost poets, Robert Adamson, who I know not only as a poet but as a Facebook friend, wildlife photographer and bird aficionado. Robert’s memoir is called Inside Out: an autobiography (Text Publishing 2004). It’s called Inside Out because Robert spent half his formative years in youth detention or in jail, for crimes ranging from theft to carnal knowledge.

Prior to reading his book, I did not know this about Robert.

Reading the book, I did not think worse of him. I was pained that his younger self consistently made such appalling decisions. I wondered why it is some young people seem to have unerring instincts to make the wrong choice. I pondered to what extent it might be genetic. It triggered the ex-teacher in me. The ex-teacher in me breathed a silent prayer of gratitude I hadn’t taught young Robert in a classroom.

(Although… maybe a young Robert, a young criminal poet, was exactly what the teacher in me needed to bring out our particular gifts, mine as a nurturer of talent and a mentor. I’ve been good in that role.)

I did not enjoy reading about Robert’s criminal past and I wish he had not had to live those experiences. Particularly, I wish he had not lived the experience of unintentionally causing another young person to be maimed for life. I know Robert feels remorse and shame for this, because he writes about that. Harming others scars us too, if we have any kind of empathy.

I did not think worse of Robert because I recognize he has empathy and sensitivity in abundance; he knows what he’s done. He does not need his readers, or his Facebook friends, to judge him. He’s done his time and what’s left is for him to deal with.

I tend to the belief that we should take people as we find them. Let their current behaviours, and their behaviours over time, be the evidence for what kind of person they are.

What, then, of the charming sociopath? What of the person without shame or remorse, without empathy or compassion? What of the person who has been denounced and punished but for whom, we might feel, it is not enough? What of the Rollo Tomasi and Keyser Soze figures, the ones that get away with it? (I am referencing two popular films here: 1997’s LA Confidential and 1995’s The Usual Suspects; in doing so I’m referencing the actor Kevin Spacey, who at this moment stands accused without formal charges.)

What about #MeToo, you ask? What about the fact that many women’s lives have been damaged by male behaviours that are not necessarily criminal in the legal sense, but which, through coercion, intimidation and longstanding, pervasive power imbalances, have enabled too many men to get away with harming women then silencing them, preventing women from calling out the perpetrators?

What about the longstanding failures of social institutions – workplaces, police and courts – to protect women or to provide redress when women are violated? Must women always observe the legal niceties and stay stumm unless they have unequivocal evidence? Are they not entitled to play nasty, to denounce in public?

When I’m not in Vulcan mode I can be plenty emotional. Let me state upfront, when anyone denounces a friend of mine publicly it does not endear the denouncer to me. Does this mean I’m in denial, shielding perpetrators? Is it illegitimate to require proof or give the benefit of the doubt or flatly proclaim it’s no business of mine?

Is it unfair to ask people making accusations to take them to the appropriate authorities, to make their case through established formal processes?

If they choose not to do that, or cannot make their case beyond he said/she said, is it unfair to call their accusations slander? Calumny? Libel? To ask them to desist?

When the #MeToo meme started, it was a simple statement of solidarity, no specifics required, no fingers pointed directly. Then more and more people chose to personalize their statements, to use social media platforms to detail allegations they may – or may not – also pursue through other avenues.

Here’s a proposition: Got a judgement or belief about a friend of mine? Feel moved to make it known via social media?

Make your denouncements on your own Timeline. Mine is not a billboard for finger pointing.

pointing-hand-vintage-image-graphicsfairy2

*Oh okay. The first incident involves white collar crime and was a woman accusing another woman based on hearsay. Does that make a difference to how you read this?


Leave a comment

Review: History of Wolves (2017) by Emily Fridlund

History_of_Wolves

Spoiler alert: contains plot details

I read History of Wolves immediately after reading Emma Cline’s The Girls (2016), and in some ways it’s a weirdly apt follow-up. Both are first novels by prodigiously talented young women writers.

Both are first person narratives told by damaged adult women recalling their young teen selves. In both cases the young teen selves are friendless and neglected, in Cline’s case living with material privilege, in Fridlund’s with privation. Both girls are desperate to be seen and to belong, and both form crushes on young women. Both stories centre on cults, and the consequences of cult beliefs, especially as promoted by male leader figures. Both discuss grooming and sexual exploitation (Fridlund in unpredictable ways). Both novels culminate in the death of innocents.

The strapline for History of Wolves is ‘How far would you go to belong?’, which could equally market The Girls.

But where The Girls is based on a notorious real-life crime (the Tate murders by Charles Manson’s followers), Fridlund’s novel is less sensational, much more subtle.

Emma Cline has said her central interest in writing The Girls was to explore the dynamics of relationships between adolescent girls; mapping that onto the lurid background of cults and massacre was a writing challenge she set herself.

Fridlund sets her story in a more mundane environment, where boredom and loneliness are the bogeymen her central character most fears.

Madeline – known as Linda, called ‘Freak’ or ‘Commie’ by her school peers, sometimes called Mattie, or Jane, or Janet – lives on a lake in frozen northern Minnesota, on a rural lot of woodland that formerly housed a commune. The commune disintegrated when she was about 7, leaving just her and her parents, who she speculates might not even be her actual parents, given children in the commune were raised in common.

Linda doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t know who named her or why. She does not feel wanted or valued. She does not feel nurtured by her critical mother or her mostly silent father. She is underfed and overladen with survival tasks.

Linda is a wolf, without a pack.

Linda so desperately wants to be seen and wanted that she tries to seduce a pedophile – and fails. Instead, the pedophile fixates on beautiful Lily, who makes “people feel encouraged, blessed”. Linda makes people feel judged.

On the back of this rejection, Linda targets a young mother who, with her infant son and husband, has recently moved into a house across a narrow neck of lake. She has more success here: Patra (also known as Cleo or Patty, Patty Pea or Patty Cakes) is also lonely, with her scientist husband Leo frequently away, and Patra wants help with her four year old, Paul.

More pertinently, as the astute Linda observes, “Didn’t she always need someone to watch her and approve? And wasn’t I better at that than anyone?”

Linda is a watcher. She’s a stalker. She watches the pedophile and Lily. She stalks them. She watches Patra and her family across the lake through their house’s large windows. At various points she spies on Patra and Leo having oral sex, she slips into their darkened house when she thinks they’re out, she cyberstalks Patra, the pedophile and Lily in later life. She sends letters about intimate matters that should not be her concern and leaves anonymous gifts. She appropriates belongings. Her boundaries are porous.

Arguably Linda is a kind of ghost, a silent sinister being without substance. Fridlund references gothic horror: Jane Eyre, “the governess”, and that other governess, in Henry James’ classic horror story, The Turn of The Screw. In The Turn of The Screw, the governess, who might be sane but might be psychologically unhinged, believes her child charges are at risk from a pair of malevolent ghosts.

Or is it Leo and Patra who are types of ‘ghost’? It emerges their religious beliefs preclude matter, insist there is only spirit. Are they a couple who present a risk to the child in Linda’s care?

Wolves

Linda watches.

Linda is so focused on watching Patra, so obsessive seeking to secure Patra’s attentions, that she fails in her role as babysitter, or “governess”, to Paul. The fact is, Paul is sick. Linda knew that on some level from the outset. But she fails to comprehend why Paul’s parents, who dote on him, don’t recognise Paul is ill and do not seek medical care.

Linda’s parents neglect her materially and emotionally. Paul’s parents see their son as a pure expression of God, as perfect, but their religious beliefs preclude any acknowledgement that his physical being might suffer.

Leo and Patra are adherents of Christian Science, and follow the tenets of its founder, Mary Baker Eddy:

“Become conscious for a single moment that Life and intelligence are purely spiritual, – neither in nor of matter, – and the body will then utter no complaints.”

Leo and Patra believe that mind determines all. If we think we are well, we will be well. If we think we are happy, we are happy. The only vulnerability is a negative mindset.

The key questions for Linda are

“What’s the difference between what you want to believe and what you do? That’s the question I should have asked Patra”

and

“And what’s the difference between what you think and what you end up doing? That’s the question I should have asked [the pedophile]”.

Linda wrestles with whether there’s a distinction between thought and act. If we think something, is that thought ‘real’, even if we do not enact it? Is it our truth? The pedophile ultimately thinks so: he accepts he is guilty, if not of the act, then of the thought.

So if Linda had the thought that without Leo and Paul, Patra would be hers, is she guilty, should Patra lose Paul and Leo? Is the illness of a child in this narrative in fact a McGuffin, a massive red herring? Is adult Linda sad, empty and angry not because she feels culpable about Paul but because she lost Patra?

It’s easy, and obvious, to read History of Wolves as a moral fable about child neglect. But I think it might be more complex. Emily Fridlund doesn’t conclude her tale after the court case. Instead, she concludes with a sexually charged sequence where Linda, a girl who (observed by a child) looks like a boy, imagines herself sexually assaulting Lily, almost as if she inhabits the psyche of the pedophile; and in imagining herself as the agent, imagines herself as the subject:

The violence in me is almost overwhelming. “That’s what you wanted, right? Just a kiss.”

And then there’s this. Even now, when those words move through my mind, like a curse or a wish, I become Lily […] I find I’m the one stranded in the boat, I’m the one shivering with cold, I feel everything and I’m the one wanted more than anything else.”

Underfed Lily is hungry, hungry like the wolf. Hungry like a pedophile driven by compulsion. Hungry to be “the one wanted more than anything else”.

This is not a tragedy about a young boy who dies. This is a horror story of a young girl werewolf who, in her desire to be “wanted more than anything else”, appropriates the objects of her desire and allows a young boy to die.

Emily_Fridlund

Author Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves