The Wounds of Living in a Patriarchal Society

Traumata, by Meera Atkinson (UQP, 2018), is an informed and passionate critique of patriarchy, woven into a braided narrative, where the author’s life story is the weft woven through the warp (the formative structure) of patriarchal society in all its forms and deformities. Atkinson’s weaving of her life story with theory is powerful, for every experience and incident she relates is material for illuminating the traumatising influence of patriarchy; hence the plural title. Her self-exposure is searching, nakedly honest and compelling, but it is always in service of her intent, which is to create a three-dimensional picture of the society we are born into, deeply and generationally wounded by the institutionalised, polyphonic, medusa-headed curse of patriarchy. Atkinson has achieved this searching picture of the wounded culture into which we are born with great skill and a remarkable command of the many discourses that inform this deconstruction of ‘traumarchy,’ her word for the traumata caused by patriarchy.

Meera, as a little girl of four, was abandoned by her father when he and her mother separated, and from then on, her childhood was beset by a succession of dysfunctional men, foils to her mother’s narcissism, one or two with paedophilic tendencies. The worst  setup was when she and her school friend arranged a meeting between their parents, and the result was a blended family, traumatised by violent quarrels between the adults and a very unsafe, chaotic domestic scene. Meera dropped out of school before she was fourteen, and her teen years were a sequence of failed attempts at finding herself, road journeys, underage drinking progressing to poly-drug use, overdoses, detoxes, failed co-dependent relationships, and finally, in her late twenties, shaky steps towards sobriety and tertiary study, and the relatively safe, but still wounded space, that she occupies.

I was about a third of the way through the book before it really took hold of me, and as I read I became more and more engaged. This slight resistance on my part was to what I saw as an eclectic toolbox of psychology, social commentary, psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory, media, neurophysiology, genetics, and more. I found myself skimming some paragraphs. But as the life story tightened its grip on me, I began to see the need to switch back and forward between different lenses, to shine light on this mass, this mess of a life.  There are no romantic happy endings in the story of a traumatised life. Atkinson describes herself now as ‘a high-functioning agoraphobe,’ with a fear of flying, a tendency to panic attacks, and OCD-like symptoms of the need for control and order, which was masked by self-medication in her earlier years.

But there are good things. Her relationship with her father is mended, so that she can say ‘I have a father now.’ She understands his failure to be the father she needed, which triggered her desperate search for a man who would love her as she was, in a stable place of safety and intimacy. She is able to say ‘I have never loved him more than I do now.’

Can the traumata of patriarchy be transformed? she asks. Despite ‘bone-deep cracks and bruised vulnerabilities and injurious trauma-bound habits,’ the challenge is to ‘dedicate your life to changing what it is in your power to change… to love life despite the ugliness, the unfairness, the injustice… [to] meet traumata in tenderness.’ And though there are ‘moments of grace,’ most of the time ‘I still struggle towards those elegant hours.’

This is a profound and deeply felt reflection on the issues of our time and their patriarchal roots, arriving at a compassionate, intelligent understanding of self and the challenge of not just surviving, but living intensely, with love and tenderness.

It deserves to be read by all thinking men and women, and to be on late secondary and tertiary reading lists, for its significant contribution to intelligent, informed, compassionate discussion of how we can address the traumata of our civilisation.

 

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The Last Garden by Eva Hornung

Published by Text, 2017. This is I think the first book Eva Hornung has published since her masterpiece, Dog Boy, won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction in 2010. I reviewed it here: https://memoryandyou.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/eva-hornungs-dog-boy-challenges-what-it-means-to-be-human/

9781925498127

The Last Garden has some similarities in theme, in that it imagines a boy crossing the border between human and animal, becoming animal for a time, and experiencing the world from a double, human-animal perspective. Benedict Orion, the hero, aged fifteen, returns home from boarding school to find that a terrible crime has shattered his childhood paradise, the farm outside the Wahrheit settlement. His father has shot his mother through the heart, and then himself.

The crime is not explained, and the year in Benedict’s life that the book covers is in part about his quest to understand it. Yet he goes about this by escaping to the barn, where he lives with the horses and the chickens and a cat, and avoids human contact, except for the irregular visits of Pastor Helfgott, who believes, for a time, that Benedict may be the Saviour that the religious community is awaiting. At the same time, he protects Benedict from being ‘civilised’ by the members of the community and allows him time to heal, to live half wild, bringing him offerings of food and reminding him to eat and pray. Benedict, who responds to the shock that has shattered his life by not speaking for a long time, is haunted not only by his father’s crime but by a fox that flickers on the edge of his vision, and brings murder and death back into his world, wounding and killing his beloved hens and roosters. The fox enters his consciousness and becomes God, taunting and enslaving him.

I have not forsaken you, said the fox, one night. I am with you always.

He has encounters, perhaps dreamed, perhaps real, with black people, and they heal him of self-inflicted wounds.The fox reminds him that he needs only him and this is his farm.

Finally, he confronts the fox and kills it.  The voice of God is gone, yet there is a profound mistake. He has killed a vixen, mother of suckling cubs. This takes him back to his own family and his father’s crime, and he reviews his life. He begins to understand how his father had made such a terrible mistake.

Maybe if Matthias had counted to ten, as Ada always told him he should, if Matthias had seen himself in the eyes of a dead fox, a horse, or for that matter a koala—any god would do— if he had let the wave of whatever pain, guilt or madness pass…

There are other strands to this story, and other voices, mainly that of Pastor Helfgott. I found this strand less convincing.

I prefer the two-dimensional world of Dog Boy, where the boy’s consciousness is the main voice.

I have to say that this is not an easy book to read. It is enigmatic and much is unspoken. I read it once and immediately began to read it again. I recall I did the same thing with Dog Boy. But I can say that this book haunted me and still does, though not as much as Dog Boy did.

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Reworking

The fragment below is from my third memoir, Found, which tells the story of my life after the breakup of my marriage and loss of my children, who were abducted by their father to the United States. It was 18 months before I saw them again, on an access visit. I went with my mother as my chaperone in enemy territory. The arrangement my ex-husband decreed was that Mum and I would stay at his house during the week, and he would stay with his girlfriend; then at weekends we would swap over, and Mum and I would go to the girlfriends’ house.

***

In his house, during the hours the girls are awake, I act like a normal mother, and keep busy when I’m not cooking or looking after them by doing crochet and embroidery. I am making a shawl for Mum in creamy wool, with an elaborate border of flowers in purples, dark reds and pinks. The pattern is wrong, and as I sit un-pulling and reworking sections, I think of all the steps that have brought me to this place, all the choices I made without realising the consequences. I drop the crochet sometimes — will I ever finish it? — and creep into their bedrooms. I bend over them as they sleep, watching their faces, uncreased and innocent, and inhale their sweet breath.

When I tire of the wayward shawl and the repetition of the pattern, I turn to another piece of work, an embroidery for the girls. Under my fingers, slowly, a picture grows of forest foliage with a faun’s face peeping out, and words from The Song of Solomon: ‘… the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.’

One afternoon when the girls come home from school, Mum and I take them shopping and choose material for a dress for each of them, and for new curtains for Sophia’s room, in bright greens, yellows and reds, with fauns leaping amongst tangled vines and trees. Mum helps me cut out the dresses and pin them, and when I have sewn them, she does the hand finishing, the hems and buttons, and helps me hem the curtains.

But when they are asleep and Mum has gone to bed, the numbness returns. I drink red wine and sit listening to music until at last sleep seems possible. In the morning, I look in the mirror and see my face, the face of a woman older than me. The lines under her eyes and round her mouth are sharply etched by the dry mountain air, cold winds and lack of sleep. I can’t stay here. I will dry up and wither away before I grow old.

leaping fauns

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My Sewing Box

My mother had a Singer treadle sewing machine, and made most of the clothes we wore. She bought Butterick and Simplicity patterns; sometimes her efforts turned out well, but sometimes they were disappointing.

When I was about eleven, I went to my first dance, the Picnic Races ball. Our friends and neighbours, the Ramages, were going, and I had a crush on their older son, Henry. He was about three years older than me, and to him I was just a little girl. He had honey blonde hair that hung over one of his delphinium blue eyes, golden brown skin, and a husky voice.

Mum bought some lavender marquisette for my dress, and some taffeta to line it. She got Baxter’s Drapery to send away to have a tailored belt made for it, and covered buttons. The bodice had pintucks, the sleeves were puffed, and the skirt gathered.

She sat up late the night before the dance, hemming the skirt. I crept into her room in the morning and tried it on. The buttons and the belt were beautiful, the pintucks perfect, but it was too big for me. My breasts were just buttons, so the bodice sagged over my rounded stomach where my waist should have been, and was too long for my short torso.

I was a wallflower that night. My dreams of dancing with Henry faded when I saw him in his tuxedo and long trousers, dancing with a girl with the same name as mine, from a wealthy pastoral family on the Lachlan. She had shoulder-length blonde hair, silky and smooth, and golden brown skin like Henry. She went to Frensham, an exclusive girls’ boarding school in the tablelands. I was still doing Correspondence school, and had little experience of talking to people my own age. I was the youngest of five children, and after my father left when I was seven years old, I became my mother’s helpmeet. Together we did the jobs that my father and my brothers, now away at boarding school or university, had been used to doing, and I became a little adult in a child’s body.

My mother was a conscientious needlewoman but not a talented one. She was very good at darning. She had a wooden darning mushroom, which she inserted into the inside-out sock and stretched the toe or the heel over. She used her little embroidery scissors to trim the ragged ends of wool, then made a knot with her threaded needle and ran a running stitch around the edges of the hole. She laid a grid of parallel threads across the hole, then wove her needle in and out to form a latticework pattern.

She tried to teach me how to do it, but my parallel threads were uneven widths apart and my weaving was irregular, so that the effect was a cobble compared to her perfect grid.

In her old age, when time hung heavy on her hands, she took up tapestry. When I was sorting through her things after she died, I found two cushion covers she had almost finished. I packed them into my trunk of sewing projects I’d half-finished or not started, and carried them with me for the next thirty-six years, through all my moves. About twenty years ago I cleared out my trunk, letting go of my dream that one day I’d be a crafty old lady. But I kept a few things — some Jacobean embroidery I’d started, a tapestry church my youngest daughter had made as a craft project at school, but not assembled (it was missing one small panel to complete the gabled roof), her guiding badges which I had meant to sew onto a blanket for her, and my mother’s two tapestries. One day, I thought, I’ll sew these onto cushions.

Recently I was looking for something in my box of unfinished projects, and found them again. I got them out and pinned them onto a couple of cushions in my study. When I say pinned, I have no pins, so I used needles from my jar of about a hundred needles I’ll never use for sewing. From time to time, while listening to podcasts, I worked on one of them, a bouquet of roses in shades of pink, mauve and red with a central yellow rose, with greenery shading from khaki to sage. Using tapestry wool, I managed to sew it onto a cushion, with great difficulty, as the needle that had a big enough eye to hold the wool had a blunt end that had to be pushed and wangled through the fabric of the cushion edge. Stubbornly, I persisted, and after a month or two, I finished it. There is a mildew stain in one corner of the canvas, and one side has a bigger border than the other, because I applied it unevenly. But the traditional picture pleases me.

The other tapestry is quite different in style, a loose arrangement of gum leaves and flowers, in shades of blue-grey, olive green, pink and red. One little section of a leaf is not filled in. I found some tapestry wool of a shade that is a close match and tried to fill it in, but my stitches looked clumsy, and I didn’t have the patience to teach myself how to do a proper tapestry stitch. So I’m leaving it empty, reflecting my mother’s desire to create a thing of beauty, unfinished. The edges of the canvas have frayed, so today I cut the frayed edges off and pinned some braid around. It’s not a perfect square, as the fraying was uneven.

Mum's tapestries

So neither cushion will be perfect. But at last my mother’s work, so laboriously done in her old age, will grace the couch in my study. She didn’t become a crafty old lady, but she made a better go of it than I have. In both of us, there’s been a dream of making things with our hands, and she passed that on to me. Both of us are more readers and writers than makers. Both of us love beautiful things. She had more patience than I have, and did things more in the proper way. I take short cuts, and botch things a little. Our making is imperfect and unfinished, and for both of us, it kept us sane in times when life was difficult and we needed something to occupy our hands and take our minds off worries and troubles.

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Found: A fragment

A wedding fragment

I found a piece of material that I cut out of my wedding dress. 1960, aged 20, I married the man who was supposed to give me the security I had lost in childhood, when my father disappeared carrying a suitcase. My mother was my security from then on, but she was also my burden. I became her constant companion, her wailing wall, her partner in running the farm, and the carrier of her dreams. A good education was part of those dreams, and so I went on from boarding school to university; marriage to a man who was intelligent, ambitious, and designed for success in his career was the other part, and so I married a man who was to become a leader in his chosen field. He was eight years older than me, and we came from different worlds. When I was 32, our worlds parted, and he abducted our three children to the United States. It was 18 months before I was able to get access to them. They were separated from me for the rest of their childhood, apart from two visits of two weeks a year.

The dress was beautiful; knee length, ivory satin with a front panel in the skirt embroidered with padded velvet roses. My wedding was a dream of elegance, beauty and taste. When I woke up, I was trapped in a world I didn’t belong in.

I cut the panel out of the dress before I threw the dress away. After my first child, I couldn’t fit into it any more. Fifty-eight years later, I find the fragment again. Insects have eaten little holes in it, and it is stained in one corner by water. But still exquisite. What to do with it? I post a picture of it on Facebook, with a photo of me and my mother before we went to the wedding superimposed on it. Many Facebook friends respond with likes and loves. One friend who is a dressmaker suggests I get it framed. And so I take it to my framer with three wedding photos, and ask her to frame it for me. It will be a collage of that dream of my life, so full of promise, so bound to fail, but redeemed by my survival and the survival of my three beautiful daughters, who are my closest friends and soul sisters. Together and apart, we have never stopped loving each other, and each of us has faced our demons and found ways of living which are true to ourselves. We found each other and ourselves again. But it was never easy.

I can leave their father out of the frame, but I can’t take him out of the story. Until he died last year, he has always been an absent presence in my life, like a shadow. That shadow has passed now, and that story is told. So his part in this story is very small.

This is the beginning of my third memoir. I’ve written one of my childhood with my mother’s story woven into it, one of my first marriage, its breakdown and the loss of my children, and now I am writing one of my life after my life fell apart. It is hard to write, and for many years I’ve not really wanted to write it. Yet now, in this last quarter of my life, a voice insists that I still have a story to tell.

So I have begun. This fragment frames the rest of my life.

 

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Memoir of Childhood Survival

https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/the-lost-woman

The Lost Woman by Sydney Wayland Smith (Text Publishing 2012) is a remarkable story. This is a review where I struggle to find words that are effective without going into the exclamatory, over-the-top register. Why? Because it tells the story of a child who nearly didn’t survive her childhood. Her upbringing was erratic, cruel, uncaring and perverse, and she makes it very clear on the first page that she wasn’t taken care of; the roles were reversed. She had to take care of her mother. Her mother, it often seemed, ‘wasn’t there,’ although she was there in the flesh.

…while she was enormously present in her fat, rolling flesh, she was absent in other ways, taken possession of by a dream that filled her mind for days at a time, that helpd her face immobile in a pose of passionate preoccupation.

Yet if her daughter left the room the mother would demand to know where she was going. She was imprisoned by invisible chains, fixed in silence, free to do as she liked only when she was walking home from school and could stretch time a little by visiting the library. Reading was her refuge. Her mother was a problem she had to solve, but she was never able to. We never know what the mother is thinking, what makes her tick, except that she regards the child as her possession. The child’s father is not a cruel man, but he is mostly absent and quite ineffectual against the mother’s power. Her brothers live their own lives, and are allowed to, for the most part. Whereas the child is prisoner to a woman who is cruel, erratic, absent, lazy, cunning, possessive, unforgiving, and probably mad. Yet she is never analysed. This is one of the strengths of the book. The narrator as a child did not understand her mother, and does not try to as an adult. She just describes her mother’s behaviour and her own responses to it in simple, direct prose that shatters us with its bleak, hopeless despair.

I was the housemaid. School was wasted on a housemaid.

I couldn’t stop resenting the unjustice. Nor could I give up trying to shirk my chores…

I had to be careful how far I pushed her. Any little thing might set her off. I had to stand at the twin tub, waiting for it to finish its cycle. If I wandered away and Mother caught me, she grabbed my ponyutail and hauled me back into the laundry room, hit me round the head a few times and napped, ‘Now stand there and don’t move.’

Yet, this child feels compassion for her mother. It hurts her that their neighbours think of her mother as a witch. Yet she was a witch to her as well.

But I knew it left out aspects of her that only I saw: her loneliness, her injured, angry helplessness. Witches weren’t supposed to be helpless or lonely; they were supposed to be self-sufficient in their power. The label hurt me too, because I understood how it tainted me. I couldn’t forget that I was the witch’s daughter and that the mark was permanent.

The mother is Maori and the father is pakeha.  The mother grudges talking about her childhood on Chatham Island, a tiny archipelago 830 kilometres east of New Zealand. She was actually of Maori and Moriori blood, and had been sent to boarding school at age 13; there, ‘Anyone caught speaking Maori got the strap.’ For her daughter, this made it even harder to imagine abandoning her mother, when she was all alone in the world. She is an enigma that her daughter never solves, at least within the covers of this book.

Every avenue led to questions or dead end. And that worried me. If she was nothing, what was I?

The child’s secret is that she writes stories. But her stories frighten her, because they always end in violence. The end of her school years looms, and she is worried about what she will do. She cannot imagine a future beyond that of an

eternally adolescent role while at the same time withering, like one of those child-sized people who aged and died without ever growing up.

She does manage to get a job and hold it for a while, and then another — undemanding clerical jobs, which leave her mind free to work on her problem of how to escape from her mother. She does, one day, taking a train to a town a few hours away; but she only lasts a week. When she returns home, she doesn’t leave the house for nine months.

The last three chapters tell of her fall into a frightening world where cameras are hidden behind the mirrors, and her mother can read her thoughts. She has fantasies of killing her mother, hideously, with a boning knife. Writing remains her passion and her shield from her murderous hatred.  Under an ultimatum from her mother, to find a job or die, she takes the boning knife and contemplates killing herself.

The young woman does escape; but only four years later, helped by an outsider to the family, a doctor. A one-way ticket to Melbourne is her escape from this cruel, hopeless existence. The doctor has helped her to see that she is responsible for her own actions, and can unmake her mistakes, and learn not to be a victim. The doctor cannot explain her mother to her. She remains an enigma. She leaves with hope, hope of being her own person, on her own terms.

So this moving, compelling memoir of an impossible childhood ends with the redemption of the victim through her own actions; she emerges into a future of possibilities, a future, we know, that will involve storytelling. For this woman is a consummate storyteller. Her prose is spare, translucent and accessible, with moments of lyrical intensity.

I’m not sure if this 2012 memoir is still in print; I had to get my copy from Abebooks. It should be. It joins a few select memoirs of childhood on my bookshelves which I regard as classics — The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway, My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, Popeye Never Told You by Rodney Hall, The Art of Disappearing by Elisabeth Hanscombe.

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The Sisters’ Song

It’s a pleasure to review this debut novel by West Australian author, Louise Allan. I have followed her on Facebook and through her newsletter for a couple of years now, and so have some idea of how hard she has worked on this story, and how heartfelt the writing process is for her. A busy career woman herself, previously a doctor, now a full-time writer, and mother of a family, she has committed herself wholeheartedly to the writing life. Which I think has given her the capacity to put herself in the shoes of two women whose dreams of life are not fulfilled.

First, I should say there are spoilers in this review, which follows many other reviews of this book, which has been published to great acclaim.

The two sisters, Ida and Nora, grow up in a fractured family, with the father dying when they are young, and the mother hospitalised with depression after her husband’s death. Their grandmother saves them from feeling like orphans. She cherishes them and nurtures their dreams. Their dreams are opposite: Ida, the older, wants a family of her own when she grows up; she desires to be all that her own mother cannot be. Nora wants to sing, to fly unfettered and travel the world.  The grandmother encourages Nora, but the mother is afraid of her daughter’s ambition and tries to hold her back.

Neither of them realise their dreams. Ida finds partial fulfillment as a nanny, but when she marries, a series of miscarriages break her heart. Nora gets pregnant when she is young and just beginning a stellar career, and is married off to a good, solid man her own age, lives in a rural part of Tasmania, and has more children she does not want. Ida finds love in her relationship with Nora’s children but has to stay in the background as she watches them grow up with a mother who is embittered and disturbed.

The story spans 70 years, and although redemption and fulfillment are found in the second generation, the losses and the sacrifices of previous generations of women are heard in the spaces between the words of the song that closes the book.

Generational healing can happen when there is awareness of the sacrifices and mistakes our parents made, and when we choose, consciously, to live life differently. Ida has this awareness, and her loyalty and love redeem her from a life of bitterness and frustration. Even her mother is able, towards the end of her life, to redeem her mistakes through encouraging the gift of music in her granddaughter. Nora, too, comes to a softer place of acceptance and pride in her family.

Where the sisters are forced to choose, in a society and a time when women were expected to stay at home and hold the family together while the man earned a living, their author has been able to follow her dreams while having a family life. I and all those who read this lovely book will congratulate her and feel glad that her dream of writing is fulfilled in such a generous, compassionate and fully realised story.


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