Category Archives: memoirs of childhood abuse

A Traveller’s Tale: an Inner and Outer Journey

Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski was published in 2003. I recently discovered it when a writer friend suggested I look at it as a model of unravelling a personal story by spiralling in and out of a themed narrative. I didn’t know what to expect; I had heard of Diski, but not read anything of hers before. I knew she had died of inoperable cancer in 2016.

I found the book strange, confronting, and yet compelling. Strange because the theme is her journey to Antarctica; the title reflects her childhood experiences of skating on an ice rink, which aggravated her with its limits. She wanted to skate on and on, endlessly. She learned to skate before she could walk. Her mother, who used to take her, and sit for hours and hours watching, dreamed of being the mother of the youngest skating champion ever, an ice princess. Something went wrong. After a while Jenny refused to practise, and life got in the way.

Now, after lengthy travel legs on the way to Antarctica, she arrives in Cabin 352, in a Russian cruise ship. The room is:

…quite as right as it could be, and in recognition of this I let out a gasp and then laughed at the improbability of my being here, far from anywhere and entirely, at that moment, satisfied with my environment. Plain white walls…The bedding, to my delight, was all white. Sheet, pillow cases and thin padded duvet, neatly folded and ship-shape. White, all white.

Jenny is an astute, ironical observer of herself and others, and entertains us with many anecdotes and encounters with fellow travellers. This braid of the narrative alone would make a splendidly entertaining and enriching travel story.

But there is a darker, hidden theme, which is slowly revealed. It is many years since she last saw her mother. Her daughter Chloe finds a death certificate which may be her mother’s, and with Jenni’s permission, sets out to find out whether she is dead or alive. Jennifer (herself as a child) has lived inside Jenni’s head, “no more certain than any other figment of my imagination. I might have made her up. I did make her up from time to time.” Her memories are of ghosts that haunted her and shouting parents.

Jenni looks up some of the women who had lived in the same block of flats as she and her parents had lived in, and visits them to talk about her parents. Her father left when she was six, her mother had a breakdown and was taken to a mental hospital, and Jennifer stayed with a foster family for two or three months. Father returned, the family was together again until the father left, for good this time, when she was eleven. The three women she visits give her scraps of information, which help her to remember. The memories are disturbing. The mother’s behaviour was erratic, swinging between violent outbursts and depression.

Living with her, day by day, was like skating on newly formed ice…. I cannot recall a moment in my life when I have wished that she was there….Bad, sad luck; human child-rearing arrangements are a crap shoot. You might as well be enraged at the ice for being too fragile to hold your weight.

As the actual journey to the heart of ice continues, more is revealed of her awful childhood, including her own hospitalisations for depression during her adolescence. In her times of depression, she saw “what was actually there to be seen. Intolerable blankness.” An absence of everything, like the whiteness of Moby Dick. The white walls of psychiatric hospitals, white sheets, peopleless landscapes, snow and ice, are her refuge from… from what? The mystery at the heart of her being is not fully revealed. Perhaps it is death, perhaps it is the psychic void of aloneness, of no one being able to help. When depression strikes, the thought arises: “Why isn’t someone helping me? Why have I got to do this on my own? I can’t.”

The child’s outrage is still with her.

I could go on, but I would be going round in circles. The heart of darkness in this book is white, all white. There is satisfaction in having her memories of her mother corroborated by witnesses. There is relief, that “she had been as I remembered her.” This is Jennifer/Jenni’s consolation.


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Memoir of Childhood Survival

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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Memoirs of childhood abuse

An alert: A friend who read the review has let me know that she found my review so disturbing that she was having images, and cannot read the book as it stirs up her own traumatic memories. I had not thought about this when I wrote the review, which contains some explicit details of abuse from the book. There may be some readers who are not able to read these disclosures without having trauma re-awakened. So I need to raise this alert, and to apologise to any who have felt such disturbance. It is a very confronting story, and readers need to be aware of that.

The Art of Disappearing, by Elisabeth Hanscombe, published by Glass House Books, is a compelling and disturbing account of the author’s childhood in a family of nine children, with Dutch parents. The theme of this memoir is the author’s enforced role of bearing witness to continued abuse from which there is no escape other than making herself as invisible as possible. As a witness, Hanscombe is relentlessly honest, and for one who taught herself so early so consistently to withdraw into herself, to escape, she is naked in her honesty. The personal work which she must have done to achieve this nakedness, to transform herself from a shy, awkward young girl to a psychotherapist and a writer, is beyond measure. To speak out, to bypass family taboos (“We do as if nothing is wrong” was her mother’s mantra, when her father, drunk on brandy, would rant and rave, abusing her mother) in itself is a huge achievement. To do so as eloquently, simply and transparently, is awe-inspiring. Through it all, the author’s voice remains detached, as if she is observing it all from a safe place, but she was never safe. She spent her nights huddled in her bed, watching and listening for her father, who would wander the hallway, checking out the rooms, and often, come into the bedroom she shared with her older sister.

Elisabeth is not usually her father’s target; it is Hannah, her older sister. Elisabeth sees him enter the room, leaning over Hannah, and turns to the wall, hoping he will think her asleep; she hears the blankets peeled back, the rustle of sheets, moans and murmurs. Then the soft thud of his bare feet across the room, the rattle of the door handle, and Hannah’s sobbing. She never knows when her turn will come.

Somehow, she manages to avoid it throughout her childhood, except for one terrible night when her mother takes refuge in Elisabeth’s bed (Hannah has left home by now) and the father enters the room and gets into bed with them, naked. Elisabeth remembers Hannah’s advice, ‘If he touches you, scream.’ She tries to squeeze herself up tight like a sheet of  paper, thin enough to blow away. The mother leaves the room, then comes back and tells him to go back to bed.

She’d come in the nick of time. Any longer and my head would have burst with the fear of what was to come. A fear that stays with me still.

Somehow, she and her siblings and their mother survive this life of poverty, struggle, fear and abuse, and Elisabeth starts studying Social Work at university, and experimenting with the freedom of living away from home, having a boyfriend, exploring life as an independent sexual being. Yet she is never free of the fear of penetration, of violation, and even after her father dies, after five years of abstinence, his shadow haunts her life.

… even then my body could not forget the fear and the impulse to hide, the sensation of walking into a room as if I was made of stuff lighter than air, as if I consisted of mind and brain matter only, as if my only protection was the smile I wore to keep others at bay.

And although she has been able to write and publish this book, and lives a fulfilled life as a therapist, a writer, a wife and mother, a person in her own right, she tells us that she still feels compelled at times to practice invisibility, and is haunted by dreams of her father. But the fears are released by the knowledge that he has lost his power, to insult, to hurt, to violate.

She no longer needs to hide.

This book is a remarkable testimony to the power of self-transformation — through life, through study, through therapy, through writing. No longer needing to disappear, she is triumphantly present in these pages. Well done, Elisabeth.


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