Elly McDonald

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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

 


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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.

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Author Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves


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Review: The Girls (2016) by Emma Cline

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Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten – Charles Manson’s “Girls”

Emma Cline’s The Girls is a serious novel, and seriously disturbing.

It’s a fictionalized reimagining of the Charles Manson “family” and the notorious murders perpetrated by Manson’s “girls” at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles in 1969.

Due to the salacious subject matter, and Emma Cline’s marketability, there was a bidding war for publishing rights in response to the book proposal. The project could have turned out grossly exploitative, but one of the attributes that makes Emma Cline marketable is her egregious talent: her novel is a stunning debut.

The Girls is a narrative told in the first person by Evie Boyd, within two timeframes: Evie aged about 61, and Evie aged 14, in 1969. Speaking as a 56 year old, I must immediately credit Cline with making an audacious choice, given the author was a mere 25 when The Girls was published. Her choice to inhabit the voice of a woman in her 60s is audacious but successful (though her mature Evie is outstandingly reflective – living through six decades doesn’t always result in this degree of insight).

Evie at 14 is painfully vivid. Cline is concerned with the vulnerabilities of adolescent girls: the ways the intense desire to belong, to be accepted within a friendship group or community, exposes them and makes them pliable, open to sexual exploitation and grooming. She’s concerned with formative adolescent sexual experiences and developing sexuality. She’s particularly concerned with the passionate feelings adolescent girls sometimes develop for each other and with older girls. Her Evie embodies all this.

Evie as a young girl is also a walking illustration of how we choose not to see, especially as adolescents, but also, for most of us, as we age. We choose not to recognize the obvious, if the obvious thwarts our illusions. We choose cognitive dissonance. We tell ourselves lies to make it all alright.

Evie is a privileged young girl from a wealthy, albeit troubled, background. She’s a socially isolated poor little rich girl. When she first sees “the girls”, gypsies, hippies, ‘free spirits’, she is immediately infatuated. When they take her to the hippy encampment on a ranch outside of San Francisco, she is seduced, literally and metaphorically, and wants nothing more than to join the girls as acolytes of Russell Hadrick, the cult leader Cline bases on Charles Manson.

Evie can see the hippy commune is dirty, disordered, dysfunctional, the small children underfoot feral and neglected, the adults semi-starved, drug addled inadequates. She can see they survive on petty criminality. But Evie is enamoured by the girls, most particularly Russell’s number one girl, Suzanne (who might be partly based on Manson disciple Susan Atkins), and all that is ugly is wreathed in the glamour of her feelings for Suzanne and her desire to be seen, accepted, and loved.

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Susan Atkins

Evie gives herself sexually. She robs her mother. She joins in burglary forays, invading the homes of her own neighbours. She lies, cheats and steals for Suzanne, the girls and Russell. The question looms: would she kill?

To this point, the story could be a gothic allegory for more usual adolescent rites of passage – the crushes, the fervent group identifications, the sleazy manipulations of young girls by older men. But this story is based on the murders instigated by Charles Manson, so inevitably the narrative must engage with the much more extreme issues around killing fellow human beings.

If Cline simply retold the Manson story, fictionalizing names, attributing motivations and feelings, I think this project would be inexcusable. But she doesn’t do that. Instead, while allowing the narrative enough closeness to the Manson killings to acknowledge the real life scaffolding, she deliberately distances the story, geographically and in other ways, both to ensure the reader is pointed to the themes she most wishes to explore and, I believe, out of respect for Manson’s real life victims.

It would be unthinkable to recount in forensic terms precisely the ways the real life victims were slaughtered. That is not an entertainment. So instead of Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Steve Parent, the victims in The Girls are named as Linda, Christopher, Gwen, and Scotty, and the ways they meet their deaths are comparable to, but not identical to, the ways Sharon, Abigail, Jay, Wojciech and Steven were killed. The killers are not named as Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian; Leslie Van Houten and Bobby Beausoleil are not named. Instead, the characters are Susan, Donna, Helen, Guy and Roos.

The LaBianca murders, perpetrated by Manson, Tex Watson and Manson’s girls the following night, are not mentioned. The Gary Hinman murder is only alluded to, without using names. The murders of James Willett and Don ‘Shorty’ Shea and the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford are outside the scope of Evie’s story.

The fictional Evie Boyd owes her material comforts to the fortune built by her grandmother, a movie star. Emma Cline is the grand-daughter of the man who invented the Jacuzzi. There was at least one pubescent girl with movie star connections embroiled in the Manson cult [I have amended this blog’s original wording, which specified an individual, almost certainly confusing that individual with a different child of Hollywood, for which I sincerely apologise]. Emma Cline was a pubescent actress whose experiences in Los Angeles as a teen on the fringes of the entertainment world and later attempting to transition to a young adult actress were so demeaning she tossed it in and instead undertook a Masters of Fine Arts (Writing) at Columbia University in New York.

At Columbia, Emma Cline as a writing talent is remembered by one faculty member as “head and shoulders above everyone else”, which is born out by The Girls. She quickly progressed to writing for Salon, O Magazine and The New Yorker, with fiction in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and Paris Review, before she was signed to a three-book fiction deal by Random House, for a rumoured $2 million.

The Girls, published in 2016, was shortlisted for the John Leonard Award from the National Book Critics Circle and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. The following year Cline was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.

Her short stories to date tend to engage with similar themes to those explored in The Girls – how young girls navigate that potentially dangerous passage to adult sexuality. Emma Cline is on record saying she constantly wonders how she survived her teen years without crippling damage. The Girls asks, did Evie?

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Emma Cline


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Hillary Clinton and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election – What happened?

Hillary Clinton, What Happened (Simon & Schuster 2017)

Susan Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton (The Text Publishing Company 2017)

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So much has been said and written about how Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 U.S. Presidential election because she was a “flawed” candidate, and about her supposed inauthenticity.

In response to the question, ‘ Who is Hillary Clinton, really?’, large numbers of Americans have, in multiple ways, insisted she’s a liar, untrustworthy, a war-monger, an Establishment agent, a privileged white lady, a Lady Macbeth, unlikeable, avaricious, corrupt, criminal, vicious, and worse (enabler for a sexual predator, a murderer).

I’m not American. I’ve watched Hillary since 1992 (not before). I followed media and social media coverage of the 2016 campaign and election. I’ve read her autobiography Living History, and now I’ve read her memoir and analysis of the 2016 elections, titled What Happened, and I remain puzzled.

Not puzzled as to who Hillary is. Seems simple to me: she’s a Methodist. An over-achieving, hyper-capable, intellectually brilliant Methodist with a life-long dedication to public service.

My puzzlement continues over how it is that such large numbers of American citizens refuse to accept it can be so simple, and prefer to believe in Clinton as a bitch-witch Medusa.

These two recent publications – What Happened by Hillary Clinton, and The Destruction of Hillary Clinton by feminist academic Susan Bordo, a media critic and cultural historian – attempt to address public perceptions of who Hillary is, and other factors that contributed to her election loss, resulting in the triumph of President Donald Trump.

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If you’re committed to the view that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she personally is “flawed”, or flawed as a candidate, I hope you will nonetheless continue reading. Most of this review focuses not on Hillary’s character and history, but on those other factors that combined to help undo her campaign.

In both Clinton’s and Bordo’s accounts, but most expansively in Clinton’s, other factors of vital public interest are identified:

  • Cyber warfare, also known as “active measures” – “semicovert or covert intelligence operations to shape an adversary’s political decisions” (Thomas Rid, Professor of Security Studies at King’s College, London).
  • The war on truth – the phenomenon of “false news” and a transition within established media from traditional news values to news as entertainment: news for ratings, news as click bait, news to fuel a 24-hours news cycle.
  • Inappropriate interference by State agencies in the electoral process, in breach of established protocols.
  • The breakdown of Democratic voter solidarity, with voters taking their cues from dissenter Democrat or third party leaders.

In short:

  • Putin
  • Emails
  • Comey
  • Sanders

At more length:

Putin, Wikileaks, cyber warfare and the war on truth

In the section of her book titled ‘Frustration’, which examines in depth specific issues and missteps within Clinton’s campaign that caused its failure, Clinton has a chapter titled ‘Trolls, Bots, Fake News, and Real Russians’. Whatever your personal views on Clinton, I recommend this chapter as a serious essay by a former Secretary of State on cyber propaganda as proxy warfare.

Clinton summarizes:

“The January 2017 Intelligence Community report called the Russian influence campaign a ‘new normal,’ and predicted Moscow would continue attacking the United States and its allies. Given the success Putin has had, we should expect interference in future elections and even more aggressive cyber and propaganda efforts. […]

“We should also expect the right-wing war on truth to continue. As Trump faces growing political and legal challenges, he and his allies will likely intensify their efforts to delegitimize the mainstream press, the judiciary, and anyone else who threatens his preferred version of reality.”

Clinton suggests four steps:

  1. A Special Counsel investigation in tandem with an independent commission with subpoena power, to “provide a full public accounting of the attack against our country and make recommendations to improve security going forward”.
  2. State and private sector partnership to plan and invest in improvements to U.S. networks and national infrastructure security, alongside acceleration of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies’ own offensive cyber and information warfare capabilities.
  3. Publicly calling out cyber enemies – Putin and Wikileaks – and taking tough measures against them.
  4. “We need to beat back the assault on truth and reason here at home and rebuild trust in our institutions.” Social media and tech companies need to adjust algorithms, deactivate bot networks, partner with fact-checkers and generally clean up their platforms. Mainstream media need to reaffirm a commitment to rigorously uphold factual rather than speculative or unexamined reporting.

By implication (Clinton doesn’t spell this out), individuals need to educate themselves to better identify fake news and stop fuelling it: stop Sharing fake news, but also stop Liking and Commenting, as responses on fake news posts trigger the algorithms that spread these posts more widely.

In What Happened’s final section, titled ‘Resilience’, in a chapter titled ‘Onward Together’, Clinton does strongly urge individuals to participate in public political conversation:

“If you’ve been keeping your opinions to yourself, try speaking out – whether that’s on social media, in a letter to the editor, or in conversations with friends, family, and neighbors. Your views are every bit as valuable as everyone else’s. You’ll be surprised by how satisfying it can be to express yourself. And chances are, once you take a stand, you’ll find you’re not standing alone for long. If all else fails, make a sign and show up at a protest.”

Using the mantra “Resist, insist, persist, and enlist”, with the emphasis on “enlist”, Clinton recommends further civic engagement:

  • “Register to vote.” Encourage friends, family and others to register too.
  • “Get involved in a cause that matters to you.” Actively involved.
  • Engage with our elected representatives.
  • Run for office.

In that section titled ‘Frustration’, Clinton addresses at length avoidable mistakes she made. A chapter titled ‘Country Roads’ examines economic stagnation in rural areas previously dependent on the fossil fuel industries, states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and parts of Ohio. She examines the impact of her statement at a town hall meeting that “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”. This chapter is heartfelt and thoughtful, and I was astonished at her courage in subsequently fronting up to a public meeting in Mingo County in West Virginia, “arguably Ground Zero for the coal crisis”. Here the candidate ran a gauntlet of “several hundred angry protestors chanting ‘We want Trump!’ and ‘Go home Hillary’”. One woman had hands dripping red paint to symbolize blood and yelled accusations about Benghazi.

In this chapter Clinton does not make excuses. She presents a distressing picture of the plight of Appalachian communities and discusses the issues from multiple angles. She does provide the full context of that inflammatory, widely disseminated quote:

“Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around policies that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these under-served poor communities. So, for example, I’m the only candidate who has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into Coal Country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right Time? And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”

In a later chapter in that section, titled ‘Why’, Clinton provides the context for the inflammatory quote about Trump voters being a “basket of deplorables”. Many Trump supporters, she continued, as quoted by Susan Bordo, are

“People who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures. They are just desperate for change. Doesn’t even really matter where it comes from. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people who we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

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Comey and “those damn emails”

There is a chapter titled ‘Those Damn Emails’. Although the issue of Hillary’s use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State dominated coverage of her presidential campaign, and ultimately, arguably, derailed it, the ‘issue’ was only ever a furphy. Federal Register regulations requiring that only government servers be used were brought in in 2013, after Clinton left office. She, like all previous Secretaries of State (Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, for example), did use a private server, and used it for both government and personal email correspondence; this was not in violation of any protocol or law. That she chose to delete her personal emails prior to providing all work-related emails for examination was found to be a legitimate choice. (Powell and Albright, by the way, did not provide any emails for examination, despite official State Department requests.)

Nor was Clinton guilty of improperly or carelessly disseminating classified emails. Even then-FBI director James Comey was obliged to retract his damning public verdict that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her email use. Under questioning on 7 July 2016 (prior to the election vote), Comey acknowledged only three of 110 emails he had claimed were classified, out of more than 30,000 work emails provided, “had any kind of markings on them at all which would have alerted the recipient to their classified status. Those three, moreover, were marked (mistakenly, as it later turned out) only ‘internally,’ with tiny letter symbols pertaining to specific sentences within the emails” (Bordo).

DEMOCRAT MATT CARTWRIGHT: You were asked about marking on a few documents, I have the manual here, marketing national classified security information. And I don’t think you were given a full chance to talk about those three documents with the little ‘c’s on them. Were they properly documented? Were they properly marked according to the manual?

JAMES COMEY: No.

CARTWRIGHT: According to the manual, and I ask unanimous consent to enter this into the record, Mr Chairman.

CHAIRMAN: Without objection so ordered.

CARTWRIGHT: According to the manual, if you’re going to classify something, there has to be a header to the document, right?

COMEY: Correct.

CARTWRIGHT: Was there a header on the three documents that we’ve discussed today that had the little ‘c’ in the text somewhere?

COMEY: No. There were three emails, the ‘c’ was in the body, in the text, but there was no header on the email or in the text.

CARTWRIGHT: So if Secretary Clinton really were an expert about what’s classified and what’s not classified and we’re following the manual, the absence of a header would tell her immediately that those three documents were not classified. Am I correct in that?

COMEY: That would be a reasonable inference.

Across the presidential campaign, it’s been quantified that there was three times more coverage of Hillary Clinton’s so-called “email scandal” than there was on all her policy statements combined. The real scandal, according to Clinton and Bordo, is the way Hillary Clinton’s email use as Secretary of State was used as a political weapon to scupper her presidential campaign. Eleven days before the election FBI director Comey publicly announced further investigation into Clinton’s emails, even though the emails in question were subject to a wholly unrelated inquiry (into former congressman Anthony Weiner’s misuse of emails) and in the event turned out to be emails already examined months earlier during the closed inquiry into Clinton’s email use.

It violates protocols for an FBI director to publicly comment on an investigation in process, much less speculate about the possible reopening of a completed investigation where, in Comey’s words, “the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant”.

But that’s what Comey did. Clinton makes a convincing case for Comey’s announcement on 28 October 2016 being the turning point and deciding factor in an election where, for all her “flaws”, she led as preferred candidate at and up until that moment. She believes that a small cabal of FBI agents in the FBI’s New York office pressured Comey into making public statements that amount to electoral interference. Bordo describes it as a “coup d’état”.

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Sanders and the Bernie Bros

In What Happened, Hillary Clinton is relatively restrained in her criticisms of Democrat contender Bernie Sanders’ impact on her campaign’s outcome. At some points her anger shows through. At other points she acknowledges him positively. Her main objection to how Sanders managed his campaign and its aftermath is that he set up ‘stalking horse’ policy positions, positions that were so idealistic, so far towards the left, that there was no chance of being able to deliver them as legislation, but which served to discredit her credentials as a “progressive” and made her own policy positions, which Clinton considers to be on the same continuum but pitched more realistically, appear compromised. She objects to his unwillingness to rein in the online vitriol of his more extreme supporters and to correct mischaracterizations of her activist history and affiliations. She notes he was tardy in publicly supporting her campaign after she was confirmed as the Democrat presidential candidate. She points out that ultimately she lost the presidential vote by a slim margin of voters, and that had some Sanders voters not abstained or voted Green, history may have been different.

Susan Bordo is not at all restrained. Her chapter ‘Bernie Sanders and the “Millennials”’ is, at 30 pages, the longest chapter in her book The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. She makes many of the same points Hillary does, but much more angrily. Unlike Hillary, she expresses exasperation at younger feminist voters who say they saw Hillary Clinton as an Establishment candidate or that they didn’t see her feminist policies and politics as relevant. Bordo isn’t at her most convincing in this chapter. She comes across as patronizing younger voters, accusing them of ignorance or immaturity.

The candidate herself is very clear younger voters are the future. She concludes What Happened? with a section titled ‘Resilience’, where in chapters titled ‘Love and Kindness’ and ‘Onward Together’, where she argues the need fervently for common cause. In ‘Onward Together’, she chooses to conclude her book with an account of her May 2017 visit to her college alma mater, Wellesley, where she had been invited to deliver an address to the graduating class, 48 years after she had come to national attention as the first student to deliver an Ivy League college graduation address, an event covered by Life magazine.

What’s interesting to me, and frankly moving, given how clear it is from previous chapters how personally devastated Hillary Clinton was by her election failure, is that in these concluding pages Clinton chooses not to focus on the speech she delivered to the Wellesley graduating class, but on the speech delivered by the representative of that class, Tala Nashawati:

“… she compared her classmates to emeralds. ‘Like us, emeralds are valuable, rare, and pretty durable,’ she said. ‘But there’s something else emeralds are known for: their flaws. I know it’s hard to admit, especially as Wellesley students, but we all have a lot of flaws. We are incomplete, scratched up in some places, jagged around the edges.’

I leaned in, curious. This is not what I had expected to hear.

‘Flawed emeralds are sometimes even better than flawless ones’, Tala went on, ‘because the flaws show authenticity and character.’

There was that word again, authenticity. But she was using it as a balm instead of a bludgeon. Flawed. How often had I heard that word over the past two years. ‘Flawed Hillary.’ But here was Tala defiantly reclaiming the word, insisting on the beauty and strength of imperfection.

Now her classmates were leaning in, too. They snapped their fingers instead of clapping, as Tala smiled and built to her close.

‘In the words of Secretary Clinton, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance in the world to pursue your dreams,’ she told the class of 2017. ‘You are rare and unique. Let yourself be flawed. Go proudly and confidently into the world with your blinding hues to show everyone who’s boss and break every glass ceiling that still remains.’

Now the snaps gave way to cheers. I was among the loudest. I stood and applauded and felt hope and pride rising in my heart. If this was the future, then everything had been worth it.

Things are going to be hard for a long time. But we are going to be okay. All of us.

The rain was ending. It was my turn to speak.

‘What do we do now?’ I said. There was only one answer: ‘Keep going.’”

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Review: You Play the Girl (2017) by Carina Chocano 

You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano

Subtitle: On Playboy Bunnies, Princesses, Trainwrecks & Other Manmade Women 

Other editions subtitle: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks & Other Mixed Messages

Other editions subtitle: and Other Vexing Stories That Tell Women Who They Are

Maleficent_Angelina_JolieCarina Chocono was losing her mind as a movie critic:

“I found myself spending hours in the dark, consuming toxic doses of superhero movies, wedding-themed romance comedies, cryptofascist paeans to war, and bromances about unattractive, immature young men and the gorgeous women desperate to marry them. Hardly any movies had female protagonists. Most actresses were cast to play ‘the girl’.”

Chocono credits film actor Isla Fisher with slapping her awake. Asked whether her break-out success in The Wedding Crashers opened opportunities for her, Fisher had reportedly replied, “All the scripts are for men and you play ‘the girl’ in the hot rod.”

Wedding_Crashers_Isla_FisherAs Chocono noted, “Women’s experience in its entirety seemed contained in that remark, not to mention several of the stages of feminist grief: the shock of waking up to the fact that the world does not also belong to you; the shame at having been so naïve as to have thought it did; the indignation, depression, and despair that follow this realization; and, finally, the marshaling of the handy coping mechanisms, compartmentalization, pragmatism, and diminished expectations.”

Before diminishing into being a “movie” critic, Chocono had thought of herself as a “film” critic (her distinction): “I wrote about what interested me and reacted to whatever seemed to be worth reacting to in the moment.” She used film as the springboard to freeform meditations on issues that resonated – as Renata Adler wrote, writing “about an event, about anything”, “putting films idiosyncratically alongside things [writers] cared about in other ways”.

You Play The Girl is a collection of essays Carina Chocono has written utilising Adler’s approach: responses to film as “a way into larger cultural conversations”.

It’s also – which cannot surprise anyone who’s read my previous blogs exploring approaches to writing memoir – a memoir, of sorts.

Elizabeth_Montgomery_BewitchedFinely etched as a filigree narrative spanning these essays is the story of how Carina Chocono figured out how to save her marriage (Chapter 2 Can This Marriage Be Saved?), be a good mother, be a good writer, and find her way back onto the heroine’s path:

“The heroine’s journey starts with the realization that she is trapped inside the illusion of a perfect world where she has no power. She employs coping strategies at first, or tries to deny reality, but eventually she is betrayed, or loses everything, and can no longer lie to herself. She wakes up. She gathers her courage. She finds her willingness to go it alone. She faces her own symbolic death. […] The heroine’s journey is circular. It moves forward in spirals and burrows inward, to understanding. […] The path is treacherous. The territory is hostile. But the heroine is brave. She knows what she wants. She’s determined to get it. Isn’t that how all good stories start?”

Yes but. As Herr Freud asked, “What do women want?”

Virginia_WoolfFor Chocono, it’s autonomy, agency, and authority. Also, equity and self-expression. To love and to be loved.

This book is dedicated to the author’s primary school aged daughter, from “For Kira” on the dedication page to the penultimate thank you in the Acknowledgements: “And to my amazing daughter, Kira, for being ever curious, always insisting on presenting her evidence, and never holding her tongue.”

The ultimate acknowledgement goes to one of Chocono’s heroines: “And to Hillary Clinton, for inspiring us both.”

Hillary_Clinton

The memoir elements tracing Chocono’s marriage are subtle, and tender, but Chocono repeatedly refers back to cultural texts that provide explicit metaphors: Lewis Carroll’s mad worlds, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; the folk tales and fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault; and the ways those folkloric tales have been reconfigured by Disney, Pixar and Hollywood more generally.

For me, Chocono is at her best deconstructing the Princess in popular culture, as she does in the chapter ‘All The Bad Guys Are Girls’. Her princesses range widely: encompassing Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty/Aurora, Elsa and Anna, and Maleficent; but also Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, and Betty Draper from Mad Men. She re-presents the Jennifer Beals character in Flashdance and the Julia Roberts character in Pretty Woman as “princesses’, based on their exceptionalism. (She savages both films, hilariously.)

Katharine_Hepburn_The_Philadelphia_Story

She asks her daughter ‘What is a princess, anyway?’

Kira replies, “It’s a very fancy woman who gets her own way.”

What most horrifies Chocono though is what happens after the ‘happy ever after’. As she points out (and as I discuss in previous blogs), a medieval princess knew she was simply a transmitter of bloodlines and a vehicle for political alliances: her role was to get up the aisle with as little fuss as possible, pop out some heirs, and remain ‘invisible’ as an individual, whether alive or dead. Even in more recent times, for girls born into elites within stratified societies (as Chocono’s great-grandmother was, in Peru), ”A woman’s education was designed to coax her to sleep at sixteen and keep her unchanged and unconscious forever. It was an undoing. It wasn’t a start but a ‘finishing’.”

Princess_Diana

Elsewhere, in her synopsis of the film Maleficent, Chicano describes the narrative building from when “King Stefan’s men try to kill Maleficent, and Aurora tries to help her and discovers [Maleficent’s hacked off] wings in a glass case, because everybody is putting girls and their parts in glass cases all the time in these stories…”

These prince “heroes” in Frozen and Maleficent are sociopaths who mutilate and usurp women with extraordinary gifts. They’re Buffalo Bill in The Silence of The Lambs appropriating women’s skin. They’re monsters.

Snow_White

Yet in popular culture, just as often, what women see reflected back is the princess as monster. To quote David Bowie, ‘I looked around / and the monster was me’.

There’s a chapter called ‘Bunnies’ that I thought might be about the Bunny Boilers, but it is in fact about lads’ mags and the Playboy magazine ideal. Bunny Boilers surface instead in the chapter titled ‘The Eternal Allure of the Basket Case’. The Basket Case makes reference to Virginia Woolf (who Chocono cites frequently), and to artists’ muses, including Courtney Love, with a glancing mention of Zelda Fitzgerald but in-depth focus on Isabelle Adjani’s most famous studies in madness, in the films The Story of Adele H and Camille Claudel. Sylvia Plath pops up. Girl, Interrupted and Fatal Attraction are the Hollywood texts, along with an HBO show I haven’t seen, Enlightened, where Laura Dern loses her mind then loses her job. Or, arguably, the other way round.

Courtney_Love

Reading Chocono’s analysis of Adele H, I was reminded of when I first read reviews of this film, when it was released, in 1975, when I was 14. Director Francois Truffaut based his film on a real life story. Adele was the daughter of French literary titan Victor Hugo, writer of the novel Les Miserables. A young English army lieutenant had proposed to Adele, but she turned him down. Later, she regretted doing so, and, uninvited, followed his regiment to Canada, where she stalked him for years, then followed his regiment to Barbados, where eventually one day he confronted her, only for it to be apparent she did not recognise him.

Adele is a princess, daughter of the greatest French literary hero of the nineteenth-century. She is a Romantic: Chocono quotes philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s definition of Romanticism as “the unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals”. She quotes from Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s book The Madwoman In The Attic, a study of “madness as feminist protest, subversion, and resistance. The madwoman, they say, serves as ‘the author’s double, and image of her own anxiety and rage’ towards a culture that oppresses her.”

Is Adele’s madness also her own misplaced sense of entitlement? Is she being a “princess”, a “very fancy woman” who thinks she can get her own way by ‘virtue’ of her privilege and passion? Is she on the “heroine’s journey”?

The_Story_of_Adele_H_Isabelle_Adjani

Virtue, as Mae West almost said but didn’t, has nothing to do with it.

Reading again about Adele H reminded me of two vintage Hollywood films that made an impact on me when I was 12, both about mad and bad bunny boilers who selfishly insisted on loving men who did not want to be loved (by them). I was so distressed by these two films that I wrote about them at length in my then-diary. I have long since burnt those diaries. But I think I remember what I had to say.

The first film was Forever Amber (1947), starring Cornel Wilde, the Texan actress Linda Darnell, and George Sanders as King Charles II. Amber is a luscious 16 year old country girl when Wilde, playing randy cavalier (a tautology?) Lord Bruce Carlton, age 29 when our story starts, rapes her as he’s en route to London. Except it isn’t really rape because obviously she was too luscious to remain virgin and was gagging for it anyway, and because she falls Wilde-ly in love with Bruce and hitches a ride with him to the metropolis. Amber remains ardently in love with Bruce Carlton even as she sleeps her way to being the king’s mistress. She nurses Bruce when he collapses with plague. She lances his pustules. She lends him money and advocates on his behalf. In return, he scorns her as a fallen woman, derides her as shallow and selfish, and eventually, once he marries a demure young heiress, he takes the child Amber bore to him away to the colony of Virginia, away from the child’s whore mother, away from the contaminated royal court.

Linda_Darnell_Forever_Amber

I felt that was unfair. Amber didn’t get to experience much love. She loved her son. Bruce was, reductively, a prick. She did not deserve his bad treatment of her.

It did not occur to me at age 12 that Amber might be capable of recognising all this herself and washing her hands of the bastard.

The second film was Leave Her to Heaven (1945), starring Gene Tierney and, again, Cornel Wilde, this time playing a writer who meets a beautiful woman, Ellen, on a train en route to her father’s funeral: the beautiful woman is especially emotionally vulnerable. Or out and out psycho. After their whirlwind marriage her obsessive jealousy and, yes, selfishness emerge. The writer has a disabled younger brother who comes to live with them. Bunny Boiler Ellen can’t bear to share her husband’s love so she watches, cold-bloodedly, as the boy drowns in a boating incident. Then her husband the writer finds solace in his friendship with her half-sister. He even dedicates his new novel to the sister, as “The gal with the hoe”. (She gardens.) Or was that dedication to “The gal with the hole”? Or “the gal with the ho’”?

Whatever. The Bunny Boiler had my sympathies.

Gene_Tierney_Leave_Her_To_Heaven

Ellen flings her pregnant self down the stairs, cruelly murdering the writer’s innocent unborn son. When he walks out on her, she kills herself, setting up her sister and her husband for a murder charge. Knowing what we know about partner violence, it would be more credible if the writer had killed the Bunny Boiler, as Michael Douglas eventually kills Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (but she was asking for it). The screen-writer does kill Gene Tierney’s character. But only after he first assassinates it.

Falta_Attraction_Glenn_CloseTo me, this, too, did not seem fair. Granted, Ellen was intense. She failed to sufficiently empathise with her husband’s needs. But all she asked was to be loved.

Gene Tierney’s problem was that she was a princess. She was a very fancy, over-entitled daddy’s girl who thought the world – or if not the whole world, her husband, at least – should love her unconditionally.

The Gene Tierney character is the Wicked Witch. She failed to play ‘the Girl’ the way ‘the Girl’ should be played – in the passenger seat.

To return to Isla Fisher: “All the scripts are for men and you play ‘the girl’ in the hot rod”:

“Women’s experience in its entirety seemed contained in that remark, not to mention several of the stages of feminist grief: the shock of waking up to the fact that the world does not also belong to you; the shame at having been so naïve as to have thought it did; the indignation, depression, and despair that follow this realization; and, finally, the marshaling of the handy coping mechanisms, compartmentalization, pragmatism, and diminished expectations.”

Or, the alternative coping mechanisms of madness and murder.

“’The girl’ doesn’t act, though – she behaves. She has no cause, but a plight. She doesn’t want anything, she is wanted.” For every princess who transforms into a witch, goes murderously crazy, there’s another – many others – being gaslighted: manipulated into believing, as Carina Chocono did, that she is losing her mind.

From Alice In Wonderland:

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Alice's_Adventures_In_Wonderland_Cheshire_Cat


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Lucrezia, Elizabeth and Sansa

Blood & Beauty / In the Name of the Family – Sarah Dunant
The White Princess – Philippa Gregory
Game of Thrones (TV series) – George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

Lucrezia Borgia lived an extraordinary life, but really, who’d swap? Who’d be a Renaissance princess for real?

Born in 1480, the illegitimate daughter of a prince of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia was twice engaged before age 12; married (to a third fiancé) at 13, divorced four years later, allegedly (but implausibly) still virginal; remarried at 18, widowed by age 20 when her brother had her husband garrotted; married once more at 22, to a duke’s syphilitic son; ten children (and multiple miscarriages) later, dead at 39. Libelled through the centuries as an adulteress, an incestuous wanton, a poisoner.

Lucrezia Borgia Elly McDonald Writer

There’s Elizabeth of York, born in 1466, eldest daughter of King Edward IV of England: first engaged at age 3; then engaged to the French Dauphin at age 9; rumoured to be her uncle King Richard III’s intended wife at 18; offered by her malformed uncle to the Portuguese king’s heir; offered by her mother to Henry Tudor, King Henry VII. Six live births, three surviving children (including the future Henry VIII) when she died in childbirth on her 37th birthday.

Elizabeth of York Elly McDonald Writer

Then there’s Sansa Stark. Sansa Stark is a fictional character. Arguably, she’s a composite invention, with elements of Elizabeth of York’s life woven through her story, and a few tangential elements of Lucrezia Borgia’s: Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, from her second marriage, was named Sancia. Viewers of the TV series Game of Thrones will recall that Sansa was engaged to King Robert Baratheon’s heir Joffrey, then married to the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, abandoned still virginal to be bigamously married off to the sociopathic rapist Ramsay Bolton. (Readers of the George RR Martin novels A Song of Ice and Fire understand the narrative in the books unfolds somewhat differently.)

Sansa Stark Elly McDonald Writer

What’s interesting about these storylines is agency.

Were Lucrezia and Elizabeth merely marriage pawns? Were they merely bargaining chips in high stakes political alliances? Or did they have some say in their ‘choices’? Once married, what degree of ‘choice’ did they have in how those marriages – and those political alliances – worked out?

Any historical fiction is always a working through of issues that address contemporary readers. As is all science fiction. So fictionalised imaginings of the lives of Lucrezia Borgia and Elizabeth of York, and fictional creations such as Sansa Stark, are vehicles to explore issues affecting women today: self-determination, autonomy and dependence among them.

Sarah Dunant has written five novels now which explore aspects of women’s lives in Renaissance Italian states. The Birth of Venus (2003) tells the tale of a Florentine merchant’s daughter who aspires to be an artist. In the Company of the Courtesan (2006) follows the career of a courtesan who, after the 1527 Sack of Rome by French armies, rebuilds her career in Venice. Sacred Hearts (2008) concerns a young girl unwillingly interned in a convent as a novice nun. Blood & Beauty (2013) and In the Name of the Family (2017) recount the fortunes of Lucrezia Borgia, through to the death of her father and her brother Cesare’s political demise.

Sarah Dunant scrupulously follows historical fact as best it can be ascertained. Where there is no surviving primary evidence, she chooses plausible speculations, from a feminist perspective. Most of the calumnies against Lucrezia Borgia are not plausible. Consequently, the Lucrezia Borgia Dunant presents is much the Lucrezia Borgia presented by Sarah Bradford in her readable biography, Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy (2004) – an exemplary Renaissance princess, a convent-educated patron of the arts well-versed in diplomatic skills.

Lucrezia Borgia 2 Elly McDonald Writer

This Lucrezia Borgia has no say in her first marriage and divorce, no hand in the death of her second husband, no choice in leaving her first-born child, but is actively involved in negotiating her third marriage and committed to ensuring that marriage succeeds. She is not an adulteress, being instead a poet’s muse, in line with poet-patroness conventions of the day. Dunant doesn’t allude to Lucrezia’s alleged affair with her brother-in-law the Duke of Mantua, but the case is well-made for why a canny political operative such as Lucrezia proved to be would reject a sexual liaison. (Besides, Francesco Gonzaga was frequently incapacitated by syphilis, and there were few occasions when the two were in physical proximity; their relationship was mainly a written correspondence.)

Lucrezia Borgia 3 Elly McDonald Writer

Lucrezia couldn’t prevent a husband she apparently loved from being murdered on her brother’s orders and was obliged to collaborate in impregnation after impregnation by a husband with advanced syphilis whose temperament and affinities were poles apart from hers. But their interests coincided: preserving the duchy of Ferrara for d’Este rule in a time of turmoil. As a team, they were a success.

Similarly, Elizabeth of York and Henry VII appear to have made a success of their marital alliance, albeit on very different terms. Elizabeth’s claim to the throne of England, as the eldest surviving child of Edward IV, was better than Henry Tudor’s. (Being female did not disbar her, as the subsequent ascents of Mary I, Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I in the Tudor period proved.) It was important to Henry that it be clear he claimed the throne in his own right, by right of conquest, and not as male spouse to a queen regnant, the Yorkist heir. The timing of his coronation, prior to the marriage, reinforced this point. Elizabeth was relegated to queen consort, stripped of political power.

It wasn’t that late medieval English female royals had no formal political influence, as had been argued until relatively recently. Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was his foremost political adviser, with private rooms adjoining her son’s and prominence in public ceremonies. Her household papers attest to the degree of power and autonomy she enjoyed.

But Elizabeth, the White Rose of York, was acknowledged as little more than a breeder. Little contemporary testimony as to her character and activities survives, other than that she was a most amiable woman, with a russet gown and one blue, fond of past-times such as cards, music and dancing, who loved her siblings, her mother and her children, and also her greyhounds. She grew plump over time. Her son Henry, who was 11 when she died, remembered her as a very pretty woman. She lived away from the public gaze, mostly at Greenwich Palace and Eltham Palace.

For Elizabeth, this was a good outcome. She had grown up as the marital prize for the would-be kings. Her destiny was to be queen of England, and she fulfilled that destiny. Even if she could not exercise power herself, her son would be king, and her descendants future rulers. She survived the downfall of her house, the House of York, the York Plantagenets, just as Lucrezia survived the fall of the house of Borgia to thrive as duchess of Ferrara, mother of future dukes.

Both were survivors – until they weren’t, until childbirth felled them. But they survived their brothers and fathers, and fared better than many might have wagered at the time.

Elizabeth of York 2 Elly McDonald Writer

The central mystery of Elizabeth’s life however remains what she made of the emergence of the man who claimed he was her brother Richard – a man who claimed he hadn’t been murdered in the Tower of London as believed, had survived his older brother Edward, had been brought up in Burgundy, and was in fact the rightful king of England, King Richard IV. This man was supported by European royalty and enjoyed prolonged hospitality at royal courts, marrying the daughter of one of Scotland’s most powerful nobles.

When this man proclaimed himself king in England, he hoped for a popular uprising. It didn’t happen. Instead he was captured. Henry VII’s agents denounced him as an imposter. They said he was really Perkin Warbeck, a Fleming. But Henry treated the imposter well initially, allowing him to live at court for 18 months, albeit under guard and without his wife, who lived under the protection of the queen, Elizabeth.

It is improbable, but possible, that Perkin was born Richard. Did Elizabeth believe Perkin Warbeck was a pretender? Was she unsure, confused? Or, privately, did she recognise him as her brother? Did she believe his wife Lady Katherine was her sister-in-law, or was Lady Katherine, for her, another young noblewoman married for political purposes? Did Elizabeth ever get to have close contact with Perkin? Did she get to see him, to speak to him, at all?

Perkin Warbeck was recaptured after allegedly trying to escape. He was severely beaten and dragged on a wooden hurdle to execution at Tyburn, alongside Elizabeth’s cousin, her aunt Isabelle’s son Edward, the young Earl of Warwick. How did this impact Elizabeth?

The truth is, Elizabeth the White Rose of York, queen consort of England, had zero agency to affect Perkin Warbeck’s fate. Even if Perkin Warbeck was Richard Plantagenet, rightful king of England, and even had his sister recognised him at first glance, there was not a thing she could have done to avert his end. Any hint of recognition, distress or mourning would have been anathema to her husband and to the dynastic interests of her children, and might have endangered Elizabeth herself. After all, her husband – and, after her death, her son Henry – spent years systematically destroying any kin of Elizabeth’s who could be acclaimed as Plantagenet heirs.

Elizabeth of York 3 Elly McDonald Writer

I’m not a huge fan of Philippa Gregory’s novels, despite their immense popularity. But Elizabeth’s powerlessness is poignant as depicted in The White Princess, just as Lucrezia’s powerlessness to prevent her second husband’s murder is poignant – is shocking – as depicted in Dunant’s Blood & Beauty.

Philippa Gregory represents Elizabeth of York almost as catatonic, as paralysed, in relation to Perkin Warbeck. Dunant shows Lucrezia and her sister-in-law Sancia desperately attempting to save Alfonso of Aragon by appealing to a higher authority, her father, the Pope – only to inadvertently leave him exposed and fatally vulnerable.

On Game of Thrones, as at the time of writing we don’t know where Sansa Stark’s story is headed. She’s developed from being a naïve ingénue through manifold manipulations to her current status as an avenging Amazon, intent on reclaiming what is hers. So far, all but one of her immediate family have been killed (with one resurrected, and one transformed into a three-eyed crow). I don’t know whether Sansa gets to call the shots in her future. But I’m betting she doesn’t die in childbirth.

Sansa, of course, is a fiction.

https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/category/medieval-history/

Sansa Stark 2 Elly McDonald Writer


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Conquest Trilogy: Viking Fire (2016) by Justin Hill

viking-fire-justin-hill-elly-mcdonald-writer

Harald Hardrada’s true-life story is epic. Parts of it are recorded in a range of historical sources, including Snorri Sturluson’s Saga of Harald Hardrada (“Hard Ruler”), and all of it is extraordinary, larger than life, as was the man, famously described as “taller than most men” and therefore requiring a larger burial plot.

It’s an epic that cries out to be told and re-told.

Viking Fire tells Harald Sigurdsson’s story for contemporary readers. It’s the second novel in Justin Hill’s Conquest Trilogy, which began with Shieldwall (also excellent).

I first met Harald Hardrada through another historical fiction trilogy, about a different – and fictional – Viking named Harald Sigurdson (sic): Henry Treece’s Viking Dawn, The Road to Miklagard, Viking Sunset. Reading Treece’s Viking Trilogy as a child in the 60s led me to Treece’s fictions Last of the Vikings and Swords from the North, both about Hardrada.

More recently I’ve re-traced Viking voyages from the frozen north through Rus through Pecheneg lands to Byzantium with Robert Low’s Orm and his men, in the Oathsworn series, starting with The Whale Road. Orm’s journey is a descent into darkness: savage, nihilistic.

Justin Hill charts similar geographical territory in his life of Harald Sigurdsson, King of Norway – Harald Hardrada, Last of the Vikings – but Hill’s novel has a different project. Framed as if recounted by a Saxon archbishop, as told to him by Harald, it’s ambitious and literary and seeks to situate Harald historically as a ruler with wide experience of the known world’s great powers, a Christian king who recognizes the need for the peoples of the North to transition from raiding and subsistence agrarian communities to trading-based economies with centralized institutions and a literate administrative class.

Hill suggests that had Harald (rather than William) succeeded in conquering England in 1066, England might have remained part of a Scandinavian sphere post-Knut, with its Saxon and Dane traditions respected and evolving to meet the needs of a new epoch. Instead, the Normans led by William defeated Harold Godwinsson at Hastings, the Harrowing devastated English lands, Saxon elites were destroyed or absorbed through marriages, Norman institutions were imposed, and Anglo-Norman England became a domain of mainland western Europe, its history for the next 500 years (or more) inextricably and bloodily entwined with that of the French kingdoms.

Ealdred the Archbishop writes: “For a king more famous for his prowess as a warrior, I expected a bluff and ill-educated man, but I was surprised. He talked expansively of his life, and he was not the brute that we had feared. He was learned, and wise, and had not wasted his time among the Greeks.”

Indeedy. As ‘Araltes’ the Varanger (a bodyguard to Emperor Michael IV), Harald played a key role in the bloody politics of C11th Byzantium, travelled in the Emperor’s service to Jerusalem, and fought in Sicily and the Italian peninsula. He amassed a fortune, enabling him to return in style to Norway, which he’d left as a 15 year old fugitive from the Battle of Stiklestad, where his half-brother King Olaf (St Olav) was killed.

It’s an astonishing life narrative that seems to argue that which doesn’t kill makes stronger. Or that fortune favours the bold. Or simply that being smart and strong and brave and lucky is a winning combination.

Justin Hill tells Harald’s tale superbly. His writing here is confident and entirely effective.

I particularly like that Hill allows his women characters dignity. There are serving women, nursemaids, empresses, queens, sex partners, wives and mothers – but he’s made the effort to acknowledge each, to create characters, and not to exploit them pornographically. Yes, women in this period were often sexually exploited, sexually abused; but women also had respected roles, sometimes important roles, and as individuals were loved and admired, as sex partners, wives, mothers, daughters and sisters have been often, throughout the ages. Reading other Viking novels we might sometimes forget this.

Read Viking Fire. Read Shieldwall. Read the third novel in the trilogy, when it comes out.

On a personal note, as I write this, and as I read this novel, I am nursing my father in his last days. Justin Hill’s novel plucked me out of my small world, and took me somewhere else. Thank you for that.


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In Another Place (1986)

One of us is standing, studying sea waters

I can’t

tell which one of us it is, but I know

the sea is green, and monstrous, and greedy –

it grasps slime-slicked rocks and hugs them

smothers them, swallows them whole

The person who watches (who is part

of me)

is compelled and repelled, alternately – a

subjugated rock

a seething cold sea

 

One of us is crouched, glaring into desert

face cloaked and eyes blinded, I can’t

say who, but I know it’s another

other of my own

an envious drifter

with needs, with held-grudges

a being of nerve ends

a scorpion camouflaged by heat-holding sand

like a remnant of cultures shattered

forgotten

fragmented, unforgiving

 

defiantly unhealed


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X (1983)

Walking past this house the temptation is strong

A brick through the window, a boot in the door

This is white This is open This is fragile This is

Valued – auctioned last Saturday (the bidding was persistent)

This is someone else’s property

now

Someone else’s

 

Home This is closed to the streets with

No remembrance of past No

Remembrance of loyalties No haven

 

for the outcast I hope

Somebody

Scrawls graffiti on your walls in

Indelible black and

it lasts


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Dybbuk (1984)

I saw her through the crowd

waving

A friend, long lost

In black, heart-shaped glasses

A precise little blonde, a Jean Seberg

destined for nightmare

Somewhat feral in flounced skirts

Nipped waist, black and white

like an old newsreel, like propaganda

I used to know

A girl like this, high-heels clipping

disturbing pigeons, slicing air

She came over and put her hand

On my arm

Almost tender

Bent across as though to whisper secrets

Screened eyes, a bloodless mouth – she

Bit

Into my neck

slashing-razor teeth, sharp as malice

smug and savage as a shattered mirror

Doppelganger, a metal-fanged ghoul

gargoyle images reflected in steel

Crowd-bold, sun-defiant

Creature of evil

A restless dybbuk, neck

to knife-edged jaw

with a dupe


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Mad Edie (1985)

He and I

Don’t talk much. We never did.

We never did

A lot of things we hoped

We might. We didn’t talk

About it, left unanswered

Hopes unsaid. I said

I wanted yes

I wanted want and

Hope and need and feel

Wanton

Wanton Edie, mad as a

Hatter a hater, Edie

Kneading her brain,

Roll it in crumbs

throw her crumbs

Roll in hay

Wanting needing feeling

Knee-deep

Filling in the hours with

Talk

 


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Tea (excerpt from the Lenny novella July 2012)

When the war was over the true terror began. It was the time of the Servants. It was hard for those of us who had been child soldiers. The Servants sent us to re-education camps to learn what service means. We learnt the tea ceremony and how to fellate our teachers. We spent dawn hours in the fields and afternoons doing data entry. In the evening we had group sessions to confess our service failures. Then we poured more tea.

I enjoyed the war. I lived in the hills, sometimes with other child soldiers, sometimes alone. When my home was first burned – when my family was burned – I escaped into the forest and lived alone for months. Mostly on raw bats. Bats taste foul but they’re easy to catch. Beetles are OK. You have to find big ones to get any juice, but the crunchy thing satisfies. I dreamt of pumpkin soup.

But I enjoyed it. The war. The way the sky lit up. So frequent yet so unpredictable. I loved those huge chutes of purple and pink. And yellow. And peach. I wanted weapons of my own, but all I had then was a knife. I wanted to find Servants so I could try it out.

Finding Servants is even easier than catching bats. They don’t take a lot care to cover their tracks. They’d say they do. They’d say they wear black and observe vows of silence to be unobtrusive. To be self-effacing. But except during the hours of the Silent Vow they talk all the time. They yell, they shout, they gossip, they grumble. They’re men. They even piss loudly.

That’s how I’d take down my first kills. They were outliers, men who’d left the group to piss or wank or just be alone. Me, I like being alone, but for a Servant it’s a vulnerable place. If you come up with a knife, unobtrusive, you can angle it upwards under their lower ribs and slash the vital organs. Lots of juice there. They generally die silent.

Sometimes they grunt, and once in a while they roar. If they make too much noise other men come running. That’s when it pays to be self-effacing, and it isn’t something I’ve needed to practice. Though as it happens I’ve accumulated experience.

When I was small my sister said I’d be handy in a war zone. And that was before the war. I don’t know if she saw the war coming then – if anyone did – but that’s what she said. It didn’t help her any. I couldn’t help her. When war arrived she died just like the others.

A war arrives like an unwanted guest. You’re going about your business – working or playing, quarrelling or hugging – and suddenly there’s this presence that interrupts everything. Suddenly everything, everyone, is enforced into its servitude.

I served the war for countless months and I mean that. I lost count. I have no idea how long the war went on. It just went on. Raw bats and blood and beetles and knives. Weapons of all kinds and smashed up entrails. Smashed in heads. Shattered hips and crushed legs. Smears of blood with just traces of bodies. It was good up in the hills where it was green and not red, and where the sky lit up like a pageant nightly. Sometimes there were other kids to talk to, and other kids to fight alongside. Sometimes there was food.

In the tea ceremony, we have to pour just so. The tea must reach a certain depth of colour – not lighter, not darker. We use a certain quantity of tea powder and whisk just so. The texture must be entirely light. We pour precisely to a certain level. We serve with a smile.

I don’t know what end purpose we serve here for. When we reach a certain level we are disappeared. The Servants tell us if we fulfil our potential we will be permitted into their community to represent redemption and model service values. I think they kill us.

The thing is, the Servants have always killed us, and it’s not like they’re dependent on us to serve them tea. They could do their own tea if the tea was what mattered. What matters is the service, which is what they’ve always been about. Once we erase ourselves and are effaced into pure service they’ve made their point; they might as well kill us. Or not. We’ve ceased to exist at that point. But they like to kill, so I think that’s how it ends.

But then again, I like to kill too, and I know who I am. I am a soldier. The more I meditate on serving the more I want to serve, just not quite the way the Servants have in mind. So maybe it’s not over. Did I say the war was over?

*

The tea ceremony? I could perform the tea ceremony with my eyes put out. Maybe some day I will.

These are the elements for the tea ceremony: tea, a small knife, a small mortar and pestle, a tea bowl, a bowl stand, tea cups, a whisk, a low table, a kettle, a kettle stand, a stove (with charcoal), a trainee, a Servant (or several). The teacake is pre-prepared. It’s imported from somewhere, I don’t know where. I believe it grows wild on forested cliffs. It’s white tea, rare and precious. Only the new shoots are picked, when they’re whitish, almost translucent. The shoots are picked at dawn, plump with dew. I’m told they must be picked by long fingernails; finger pads would bruise them.

Who told me this? A girl in the camp. She was a bit older than I am. I only talked with her once, after that she disappeared. I would have liked to ask her more.

The tea leaves are steamed, then crushed, then shaped by a mould into the form of an egg. Why an egg? I don’t know. I think it’s just aesthetically pleasing. Then the tea-egg is dried. It’s wrapped in a very fine tissue, each tea-egg stored in its individual container. The containers are carved from fragrant wood but unembellished. The tea-egg and the containers are smooth.

When I am called to perform the tea ceremony I am required to be washed first. I report to the cleansing studio. In the cleansing studio I am entirely passive: everything is done on my behalf. I am stripped of clothing and my intimate parts are scrubbed using sponges soaked in tepid water. By “my intimate parts”, I mean everywhere there is a hinge joint: between and under my toes, around my ankles, behind my knees, in my groin and where thigh meets hip, under my arms, under my chin, in my elbows, around my wrists, between and around my fingers. Also anywhere there are flesh flaps: my genitals, around my lips, my nostrils, my earlobes, around the top cartilage of my ears, my eyelids.

My scalp is washed. If hair has sprouted, it’s shaved again. It’s important that no blood be spilt so they’re careful not to cut me. The women who prepare me are expert. They do this fast and silently, never making eye contact. When they’re done they step me into a simple undergarment and wrap a large shawl around me. The shawl is fine cotton and feels not unpleasant. The women tuck and fold so the shawl covers me entirely. There’s no risk of it coming undone. I can move my arms and my torso without fearing cloth will fall into the tea bowl.

When I am clad the women paint a single spot on my face, a red dot just below my lower lip. I don’t know what it symbolises but I’m guessing it means something.

The oldest of the women then presents me with a tea-egg container. I am escorted out of the cleansing studio and guided to the tea house. As if I don’t know where it’s located. Tea is only ever served in the tea house. Everything is already set up there. The Servants are waiting.

So when I enter the tea house I see the Servants, sitting cross-legged on cushions alongside a low table. The table is plain and utterly smooth. The Servants wear black, as they always do. For the tea ceremony they wear their indoor robes. The fabrics are fine textured and deepest dark black, but devoid of ornamentation. The Servants’ Silent Vow applies during the tea ceremony, so they do not speak. I keep my eyes down and kneel before the table with the tea-egg container held in front in both hands. I place the tea-egg container on the table, pause, than prostrate myself, forehead to floor. Then I sit back on my heels and pause again.

I open the tea-egg container and lift out the tea-egg in its tissue wrapping. Very gently, I unfold the wrapping so the egg is exposed in my hands. I take the small knife from the table and here I always falter. I am expert with a knife. I can kill with a knife. If I smashed it into an eyeball, or up under a jaw, through the soft part, I could kill at least one Servant. Or through the base of the throat, I’m spoiled for choice. I always look too long at the knife. Then I take it – it’s very small – and ever so carefully shave a tiny piece of tea from the tea-egg. I do this as carefully, as expertly, as the women shaving my body.

Because I shave the tea-egg so carefully the fragment I shave does not break up. I place it in the pestle and crush it with the mortar. I grind for just a moment or two and it becomes fine powder. A kettle has been brewing on the small stove to the side of the room, which is fuelled by charcoal and stoked by the women before I arrived. The kettle is a metal ewer worked in a cylindrical shape – tall, flaring out from a flat small base then narrowing to a small, mouth-like opening. Ovoid,like an elongated egg. The water is boiling now. The water is pure. It’s been sourced from a stream or lake, or so I am told. The higher in the hills the better. I could take the boiling water and fling it in a Servant’s face. There isn’t a large volume of water, just enough for a few tea cups, but hot water stings and I could use that moment to knife a Servant or simply run.

I don’t do that today. Instead I use a section of shawl to wrap my hand and lift the hot kettle from the stove. I pour a small amount into the tea bowl then place the metal ewer back on the stove. Very carefully, I smooth the fine tea powder into the tea bowl with its shallow portion of hot water. This creates a paste. Then I retrieve the kettle with my left hand, wrapped in its shawl, and pick up the wooden whisk with my right hand. I pour and whisk simultaneously, ensuring the paste is diluted only gradually, so that it retains a milky white colour. I rotate the kettle as I pour. As I whisk, using a circular motion, a light head of foam develops. This is known as the Milky Way or Star Flight. It is very important that the Milky Way be frothy yet quite firm, so that it remains in place even as I pour the tea into cups.

The utensils matter. The tea bowl must be thick ceramic, pale duck egg blue. It must be deep, to get a good head of foam, and wide so I can whisk without spillage. The upper lip opens outwards, the texture is entirely smooth. The tea cups are the same duck egg blue, the same smoothness, but thin to the point that to pick them up by hand appears unseemly, even brutal. They look fragile. But so far I have never seen one break, so there must be something in the way they are fired that results in unexpected strength.

I don’t touch them myself. They are arranged on the table and my task is to pour tea. I place the kettle in the kettle stand and the tea bowl in the bowl stand. I bow lightly towards the Servant furthest from me. I say

“May you live in peace.

May you live in harmony.

May the universe shape itself for your comfort.

This is what it is to serve.

You do me honour.”

When the words are said I pour tea for that Servant. He then reaches out and takes his tea cup. The tea should look like cloud against a pale blue sky. Then I turn to the next furthest Servant from me, bow, say the words and pour his tea. Then the next, till however many Servants are present are served.

When the Servants have been served tea they drink in silence. They drink slowly, as tea cannot be rushed. During this time I kneel with my head bent. I do not move until I hear knuckles rapped on the table. This signals that the Servants have completed drinking tea. Now it is time for me to sing. It is always the same song:

“For as long as worlds suffer

I will serve.
For as long as chaos threatens

I will serve.

For as long as darkness rends daylight

I will serve.

For as long as time continues and change reigns

I live only to serve.

O teach me to serve.

Let me honour you with service.”

Then the Servant closest to me lifts his tunic and I am required to kneel over his crotch. I am required to serve. I serve each of the Servants in turn, in silence. When each Servant has been served, the final Servant, the one furthest from where I started, raps the table to signal me to leave.

I return unescorted to the cleansing studio where the women await me. The roster of women changes from visit to visit but the women who prepare me are always the same team who debrief me afterwards. First they use a sponge to wipe off the red dot beneath my lower lip, assuming it’s survived. They wipe my lower lip regardless. Then they unrobe me. Naked, I kneel then prostrate myself. Three times I say “I have served. I have served. I have served.” Then I extend myself fully like a snake, belly to ground, face to ground, and I say “I live to serve.” The women pick me up by reaching under my armpits and hauling me to my feet. They hand me back my regular coarse clothes and turn their backs on me. I walk to the door and exit, returning to the afternoon’s data entry, if this had been an afternoon session, or retiring to barracks if an evening session.

Generally I do two sessions a day. Some of us are seldom called but I have much to learn about service. Since I am a slow learner I’m not afraid I’ll be disappeared soon, but eventually I’ll be deemed proficient in the tea ceremony and then my ultimate self-effacement will be imminent. I am planning. I pride myself on being canny at planning, even if my service failures are gross, so with luck I will have a plan that works before I graduate as a tea ceremony adept.

*

I don’t know what you look like but I know one day we’ll meet. There will be an investigator and there will be a witness. I will be that witness. You’ll ask me about the Servants, and I’ll tell you there’s a lot I don’t understand, but this is what I know:

My family were at home watching TV when a newscast came on to say the Ruler for Life had been in a military plane which exploded over the hills. The Storytellers live separate from other Divisions, in villages clustered in the foothills. Somewhere mid-air between take-off from the airport outside the city and the hilltops near our home, the Ruler for Life had been assassinated.

That’s when war broke out. A lot of us didn’t know how to respond to the newscast. We stayed by our TVs and radios to listen for updates. We logged on to the internet. Within hours we were dragged from our homes and slaughtered, our houses set ablaze. The roads were cordoned off and anyone caught trying to escape was killed. I was lucky. I wasn’t caught.

This is when the Servants came into their own. The Servants started as the Ruler for Life’s bodyguards. After the Ruler for Life was killed, their numbers swelled. The Servants became those who serve the memory of the ruler. The killing was an unspeakable act, so the Servants take a vow of silence. They don’t speak between nightfall and breakfast, nor for an hour either side of meals, and they don’t speak during the tea ceremony. They are required to take part in a tea ceremony daily. The Servants take a celibacy vow. That’s OK. What they do in the tea ceremony isn’t sex. The tea ceremony is about service. Anyone can tell you that.

Service is the Servants’ highest value. Art is ornamentation, is embellishment, elaboration, lying. Art is self assertion. To be a Servant is the opposite of being a Story Teller. The mission of the Servants is to stamp out Story Telling.

That is why I am in a re-education camp. I am being trained in service. I might not like the means by which I am being retrained, the medium by which my voice is smothered, but my likes and dislikes are irrelevant. I am irrelevant. That is why once I fully understand, I will be killed.

My mission is to find you, the investigator, and tell my stories before I am killed.

The Lenny novella (c.26,737 words) – 2012 and 2018

tea bowl


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A Story (1984)

“Tell me a story, Bev.”

Bev looked across her bed to Deb’s, and saw her sister as a mountain cat crouched low along a tree limb, eyes burnished by the dark.

“I can’t.”

“Go on, Bev. Do it. Tell me a story.”

No, thought Bev, and rolled over, flat on her back. She placed her hands under the bulb of her skull, and relished the ‘V’ between nape and elbows. Toes pointed, she stretched her feel away from her head. Her body worked – everything in order.

“No”, she said. “I think it’s childish. I can’t just make up nonsense any old time, anyway. It’s bad enough having to share a bedroom, without having to tell you bed-time stories every night. Go to sleep.”

“I can’t”, said her sister. “I feel bad.”

Bev thought this over. It felt bad just to think about Deb’s problem, let alone to have it. She softened. She sat up.

“Are you going to tell Mum?”

“No”, said Deb.

“You could, you know.”

“Yeah.” Deb sighed. “Sure I could tell her. She’d cry and I’d cry and we’d both feel lousy. It wouldn’t change anything. What could she do about it? Why bother hurting her?”

“I guess so”, said Bev, humbled. Somehow it seemed very brave and adult for Deb to refuse to inflict pain.

“She’s got enough to worry about, anyway”, Deb continued, suddenly less generous – even oddly resentful. “It’s hard enough putting us two through school and having to work at that horrible job, without Dad going crazy as well. He really picks his times!”

That’s not fair, though Bev. It’s not as if he had any choice – any more than you did.

“What will they do to him this time?” she said, instead.

“God, I don’t know! Why should we bother? It’s not as if he’s bothered with us for years!” Deb snorted harshly. Then, as if chastened, she added meekly “Put him in a funny farm at last, I guess. Let him draw it out of his system.”

Bev nodded uncertainly. Their father had been a commercial artist, employed to draw fashion designs in dress-pattern catalogues. Always highly stylised, the limbs and faces on the mannequins he sketched had grown longer and more gaunt with every season; their colouring had paled, grown ashen, turned blue. Last catalogue, his folio figures were grotesque: emaciated corpses, stretched as if broken on a rack. Their jaws lolled. Their creator was fired.

“Do you think he’s really crazy, Deb?”

“Yup!” Deb chewed the syllable, then spat it out again. “Yup. I sure do.”

Bev sat back in her blankets and pondered. “If we tell Mum she might tell Dad.”

“No way!” A flat, emphatic statement. “And we’re not going to tell Mum anyway, are we?”

“No”, said Bev, brave and obedient.

 

Last summer Bev and Deb had squandered at the beach. Every weekend, and all the holidays. They even wagged a day from school. With a group of friends they’d caught the train to Geelong, and from there they’d hitchhiked down the coast. Bev had turned fourteen that week. It was the first summer she’d looked good in a bikini, and she’d sauntered around the sands all day, trying out effective hip and leg angles as she walked, as she swam, as she shook out her beach towel.

On the train coming home, an inspector had asked to see their tickets. First the others, then Deb and Bev.

“Names”, he demanded, in a disinterested tone, and not knowing any better, they’d given them.

“Same surname, eh? Sisters?” Not knowing better, the two had nodded.

“How old?” barked the ticket inspector. Deb – who was travelling on a half-fare ticket – dumped fifteen months and answered “Fourteen”.

“You?” the inspector asked Bev, and she – more tall, more solid than her sister – had whispered “Fourteen” too.

“Really?” the ticket inspector sneered. “You can’t both be fourteen, sisters!”

A moment’s awkward silence. Then Bev, the unembarrassed liar, said quickly “I’m adopted”. A self-serving faker, only part way developed.

Bev was growing up, and she learned fast. Deb could trust Bev, and she did.

“I don’t want a baby”, Deb confided.

“You’re not going to have one”, Bev reassured her, adding, confused, “I am mean, you may be going to have one at the moment, but it’s not going to really happen, is it?”

“No”, said Deb, shaking her head slowly. Both lay quiet in the darkened bedroom. Deb, sighing, added the unsaid.

“Rob wants to marry me, Bev. Me, at sixteen, married with a baby! I couldn’t bera it!”

Bev couldn’t bear the thought of it either. Deb didn’t trust Rob, and she didn’t love him. Not like she loved her sister.

“He’s getting really heavy ‘cos I won’t, Bev. He shouts things at me when he sees me at the pub. I can’t hang out with the beach crowd anymore. He’s told them all sorts of lies about me.”

Don’t cry, blossom, Bev consoled mentally. “I don’t like any of them anyway”, she pouted.

“No”, murmured Deb. “Maybe not. But I did.”

“There are lots of better people in the world than that, Deb. There are better parties than the ones they give, and better pubs to go to.”

“Yeah”, Deb agreed. “And there’s more to life than people and parties and pubs and things. I can do better than that.”

Bev remembered the beach last summer. After the pub one night, Rob had thrown a party at his parents’ beach-house. All the local kids had turned up there too. She’d got really drunk on bacardis and coke, and Jamie took her for a ride in his new van. He’d driven up to the look-out on the sand-dunes, and they’d just sat there, saying nothing. She’d had the feeling she should do the talking, and that she should know what to say. But she didn’t, and before long Jamie sighed, and drove her back.

At the house, she felt ill. She wanted to go to bed. Rob had told her she could have the room upstairs, but when she turned the lights on, someone else had already claimed the bed.

“This is my bed”, insisted Bev stoutly, yanking the coverlet towards her. The stranger took no notice.

“All right”, said Bev. “If I can’t get you to move, I’ll just have to get in anyway.”

So she did, and that was that.

“Does it feel good?” the stranger asked.

“Yes”, Bev lied. She would not breathe another word, not then or later. She nearly did, at one point – when he moved on top of her, he hurt so much, and for so long, she was just about to cry out “STOP! Forget it. Pleeease stop!” But then it hurt less, and she was so relieved she really didn’t care that less was still a lot.

She felt she was brave, and adult – like Deb about her baby, or (she imagined) like women giving birth. She felt suitably initiated, as if at last let in on a fundamental secret, and the secret (she believed) was that no matter what they tell you, it’s horrible. It hurts. Reality, she now knew, hurts.

Deb’s baby would soon be a reality, but Bev felt confident that here, reality could be thwarted. Out-manoeuvred. It wasn’t going to happen, was it? Not if Bev or Deb could prevent it. They lay there in darkness, counter-plotting.

On the morning, the two girls wagged school and instead caught a tram to the clinic. They walked in past protesters bearing placards, picketing outside. They walked square-shouldered in private school uniforms. Bev wanted to follow Deb and the woman doctor into the surgery, but the doctor told her to stay in the waiting-room, and so she did.

The uniform made her self-conscious. She placed her feet primly together, and was surprised and impressed by how long her legs had grown, shaven and smoothly brown. She looked across at the wall-mirror: all her limbs were long, straight and gleaming, like her hair. She picked up a magazine and leafed through it. She looked at least as enticing as most of these models, Bev realised, with a thrill tempered by alarm. She’d never before thought of herself as ‘enticing’. ‘Appetising’. ‘Desirable’. Foreign words. Yet she was all this; she could con with the best of them. The thought gave her pleasure, yet it also disturbed her. She put it aside, intending to take it up again later.

Deb and Bev caught a train home from the clinic. Neither had anything much to say.

“Are you okay?” asked Bev, and Deb insisted she was fine. Bev, content to believe her, was massively relieved.

“Here, I’ll tell you a story on the train,” she beamed at her sister, who smiled back wanly. To the station attendant, she held out a handful of silver and said “Two adults, thanks”.

Schoolgirl

Me. (This story is not about me.)


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Special (19 April 2014)

Image

It was February 1988. I was dressed like a model in a Robert Palmer music video: black high heels, black tights, tight black pencil skirt, fine-ribbed body-hugging black top, huge dangly 80s earrings, kohl-lined eyes. Lots of hair. I sat in a room with about 100 people, listening to the man on stage sell snake oil. Every so often I crossed and re-crossed my legs.

When the presentation ended, a young woman seated near me leaned across. “That man spent that entire presentation staring at your legs!” she said. I knew. I’d noticed.

Might as well face it / you’re addicted to love…” But I wasn’t. I was addicted to rejection.

The man on the stage was on a barnstorming tour from the United States, selling seminars that promised to “transform” our lives. I told a male friend, “This man will turn your life upside down!”

My friend, not a sceptic, looked sceptical. In the event, it was my life that was up-ended.

After the presentation, the man on the stage was introduced to me and asked if I could recommend somewhere he might eat. I suggested he join me for dinner at the notorious Bourbon & Beefsteak in Kings Cross. We went to dinner. We watched the Japanese men at a neighbouring table get more and more drunk and more and more combative.

“That man has an opinion,” I said.

“No,” replied my companion. “His opinion has him.”

I felt very adult, very sophisticated, very seductive. I strode out afterwards into thick traffic and when he queried whether stepping out in front of cars was safe, I glanced pityingly at him over my shoulder. “It’s easy,” I said. “You just step out. They have to give way.”

I felt so powerful and so sexual. I felt special. I felt chosen.

On our third night together I said something about what other people were saying about us. I have no recall of what exactly I said but I do recall his reaction.

“Other people know about this?” he yelped. “You’ve told other people? Why would you want this to live out there as gossip?”

He was 6’2”, close on 200lb, a former combat marine who’d volunteered for two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was yelling and he was red.

Something was obviously wrong, and I was instantly very, very frightened. That was the moment I “went to Jupiter”, as I thought of it later. Psychiatrists call it dissociation. I withdrew mentally, naked in my bed, so that this raging monster in my small bedroom seemed as if viewed through the wrong end of a telescope: far, far away; small and distant; unable to reach me. I did not want to ever return.

In the transformational organisation, where I was a senior volunteer, gossip got around. Eventually I came to understand that in the mere two weeks this man spent in Australia, he had sex with perhaps five other female volunteers, each one of whom believed she was the chosen one. Believed she was special.

When I recall this man now, I confuse his image with others from the same template: Jimmy Swaggart (the disgraced evangelist), Jerry Lee Lewis (the disgraced rock’n’roller), Bill Clinton (the disgraced politician). He was a tall well-built man with silver hair and a cocky manner, a good ol’ boy from the Deep South, from Texas, just across the border from Louisiana. After Vietnam he’d been an angry man. He’d hung out with motorcycle gangs. Then he’d been, variously, a psychiatric nurse and an operative in local Texas politics before transforming into a personal development course leader.

The girls he targeted were of a type. They were pretty girls (“You are such a pretty girl”, he told me), superficially confident but insecure, each one of us an eating disorders sufferer. Each one had a desperate need for affirmation. We each of us wanted to be special, to be chosen.

When it became public that we were a harem, interchangeable conquests, each of us responded characteristically. One girl changed her address and her phone number and her family refused to divulge her whereabouts. It was rumoured she’d suffered a major breakdown. Another girl disappeared altogether. Eighteen months later she made contact from Canada – to apologise for worrying anyone. The girl who had best reason to believe she was the chosen escort broke down publicly in torrents of tears. Two weeks later she met a rising TV star, whom she later married.

I was perceived as the villain and the vamp. I was the one who made the issue public. I was the one who caused the floods of tears.

“How did this happen?” an older woman demanded.

“We just… clicked,” I responded, weakly.

“Well next time you just click, just walk away, okay?” the woman directed.

I went on a day cruise on the river with staff and senior volunteers from the personal development organisation. I watched as the senior manager, who had just lost a large amount of weight, experimented with her ‘new’ sexual allure. I scanned the smorgasbord and reached for the chocolate biscuits. I force fed myself chocolate biscuits for years as my own eating disorder resurfaced with a vengeance. I had no desire whatsoever to be the vamp. I had no desire whatsoever.

Within the organisation, there were internal discussions. Between the USA offices and the Australian offices, it was agreed the organisation bore no responsibility but that this man should “take care” of the damage, which meant “taking care” of me. He didn’t enjoy that. Occasionally I took perverse pleasure in torturing him with forlorn phone calls.

I went to San Francisco to do advanced training as a volunteer. This man was on-site, as an advanced course instructor. The older woman who’d warned me against “clicking” was there as well. I saw a card she sent him thanking him for changing her life, for his insight and understanding. Then she told me he’d told her I’d “made it up”.

On a hill in northern California, overlooking the organisation’s advanced training site, I sat watching a young man repair his car. He was a younger course leader and he was quietly sympathetic. We never discussed what had happened in Sydney. I just watched him work on his red sports car and we talked about INXS, who I knew personally and who at the time had a Number 1 US hit. When I returned to the office that day, I was taken into a room and told not to flirt with Brian, not to get up to my tricks. The woman who instructed me informed me she was a “master of communication”, who could “read human beings”, and she saw I was dangerous. Later, back in Australia, Brian of the red Alfa Romeo sent me a short note, telling me he’d left the organisation, and noting: “No one there was on your side.”

Some years later I was involved in a faux sex scandal – that is, a gossip maelstrom where no sex had actually occurred. It was so stale, being cast as the Scarlet Woman. The vehemence, the lurid nastiness, was all too familiar.

As I write this now, I fantasise an alternative reality, one in which I leap into Brian’s red sports car, cast my sultry gaze his way, and command: “Let’s go!”

I fantasise Brian and me speeding off through the hills above Santa Rosa, out towards Nevada, a male-female Thelma and Louise, revving up towards a deep canyon. I fantasise an alternative version of the faux sex scandal, one where I leap on the office desk – those damned office desks in that glamorous glass tower – and I proclaim, “Yes! I did it! I seduced this lovely man, I harmed his lovely wife! I set out to cause his children pain! I live to create workplace soap opera!”

I visualise me in a red dress, a music video model undulating as Chris Isaak melancholically accuses me in song of playing a Wicked Game: “What a wicked thing to do / to make me dream of you...”

I visualise myself as Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”

I remember how a few weeks after my trip to Jupiter I was asked out to dinner by a young man with green eyes. A really handsome boy. Interesting. Kind. Someone who – had I travelled with him – might have been a partner on journeys worth making. I recall I was so petrified to date that I could barely converse. I remember us walking through Sydney’s Martin Place, in the dark, in the rain: me opening my palms out to the raindrops, him looking sad.

These days, when I hear reports of sexual exploitation within organisations and institutions, I feel I can relate. There is a spectrum of vulnerability. The saddest cases are those involving the very young and the most powerless. There are also adults who on the face of it were culpably foolish.

Believe me, they do feel culpable. They feel ashamed. In my case, I felt so ashamed it was years before I “stepped out”, in any sense, again. I spent years angry. The upside was eventually I had to work out ways to build myself a lifeline, to build a new life.

When I hear these reports, I want to tell those who’ve been exploited: Don’t let these predators poison your future.

Reclaim your life.