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

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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Only connect!

Let us connect! From E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (1910):
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.
 As writers, we connect with our readers.
As readers, we connect with the worlds imagined and created by writers, and live gratuitously the lives of many. We extend and deepen our universe by entering other worlds — some like ours but different, some quite unfamiliar. We are adventurers, led by the writers we like.
As writers, we are guides, opening up new worlds for our readers. As humans, we are all connected, but can become very disconnected by our circumstances, pressures, losses, illnesses, traumas. Literature can help us re-connect and remember we are one of a community of humans, and can live and share and love in our daily lives and in our imagination.
I love supporting and helping other writers. I write book reviews, posted on Goodreads and on my blog, I was Writer-in-Residence at Peter Cowan Writers Centre in Perth, in 2012, and spent a great deal of my month there mentoring other writers.
I am available to judge local writers’ competitions, and would love to extend my practice in this way, encouraging all those emerging writers out there to find their voices, to put their words out on the ether, to speak to the audience. There is a rhizomatic connection of writers-with-writers-with-readers, which the Internet fosters, but which is also kept alive through local writers centres and writing groups. I know how much inferior literature as published (while not denying there is much good writing published); and I also know how many good writers are struggling to have their voices heard, to have their work published. I am constitutionally for the underdog, and so my passion is to connect the emerging or new writer with their audience.  
Long live writing! Long live books! Long live the writers! Long live the readers!

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Survivors of parental child abduction

I now have a special Facebook page for the project of writing the stories of mothers who’ve survived parental child abduction. On it there is a button where you can email me:

Writing Lives

Hello lovely readers, and happy new year! May 2018 be a year of love, laughter, creativity and compassion.

I have a mission this year, beyond my usual writing and editing practice. It came up for me unexpectedly, when my eldest daughter returned to me a bundle of letters which I had written to her father 35 years ago. When I began to read them, I felt heavy, sad, frustrated. I put them aside for a couple of days. I started to read them again just after Christmas, and realised I need to do something constructive with them. The first task is to type them up as a record for me and my children. But as I started to do so, I began to feel more positive, even empowered. I had forgotten all the details of that agonising time, one Spring morning in Sydney, when the phone rang and he told…

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Survivors of parental child abduction

Hello lovely readers, and happy new year! May 2018 be a year of love, laughter, creativity and compassion.

I have a mission this year, beyond my usual writing and editing practice. It came up for me unexpectedly, when my eldest daughter returned to me a bundle of letters which I had written to her father 35 years ago. When I began to read them, I felt heavy, sad, frustrated. I put them aside for a couple of days. I started to read them again just after Christmas, and realised I need to do something constructive with them. The first task is to type them up as a record for me and my children. But as I started to do so, I began to feel more positive, even empowered. I had forgotten all the details of that agonising time, one Spring morning in Sydney, when the phone rang and he told me he was on the way to Colorado with our three little daughters, aged 7, 5, and 2 and a quarter. “You are a deserting wife and an abandoning mother,” he said, “and you’ll never see your children again,” and put the phone down.

It took me 18 months to get access to them, and from then on, I saw them no more than twice a year, until the youngest one, at age 14, chose to come and live with me. They had been back in Australia for the past few years, and by then, the law had changed, so that a child of 14 or older could choose which parent they wanted to live with without going to court and testifying.

The circumstances around our separation and their abduction were fraught, and the reasons that he was able to do what he did complex and for the most part, ones I had no control over.

I realised as I began to type them that there may be many other women out there, in Australia, who have lost their children through parental abduction. So I have decided to start canvassing for their stories. I am also interested in finding a collaborator writer/editor, who could help me compile them into a collection, and if possible, a source of funding, a small publishing grant. I would like to find agencies or groups who support and work with women who’ve lost their children, so I can contact these women and see if they would like to tell their story. I am more interested in women whose voices have been silenced, than celebrities or women who’ve had high profile public cases. And I have to narrow the field to parental child abduction, not institutional or governmental forced adoption or separation. Also, I would have to exclude the children’s stories; that is a very big field, and would be another volume!

If you or someone you know has had a similar experience and would like to tell their story, you or they can message me on my contact page at

Or on my Facebook page, which has an email button:

I will create a contact from for this page, but at present I can’t get it to work; will solve that.

To end, here is an excerpt from a letter I wrote, an unusually emotive one; usually I tried to be civil and rational, since he had all the power and I had none, and his mode of conflict was driven by fear and expressed as control and threat.

I never wanted to lose my children, and I protest strongly against the injustice of your attitude that they are your children, and that you will protect your home and possession of them from me at all costs. I have never behaved as a mother in a way that justifies this. My decision to leave the family was as much yours as mine, in fact it was proposed by you, as you will recall. I love my children, and they love me, and you have no right to put so many obstacles between us. Had I known you would behave in this way, I would never have allowed you (by default)[1] to leave the country with them. At every stage since I left Mackay, you have progressively tried to reduce my status as their mother and your ex-partner and to deny me the right to any say in their lives and their relationship with me. Please remember I gave you freedom from an incompatible relationship, as much as I have sought my own.

Up until the time you left Australia with the children without telling me, I felt affection and concern for you. I am afraid you have since destroyed that. The best that can be salvaged from the ruins of our relationship is co-operation, based on legal guarantees, over my access to the children. You are ‘adamant’ about protecting your ‘rights’. I, too, am adamant. I want from you the legal guarantees I have asked for over my access to the children, and I will not co-operate any further until I have them. You have far more to lose than I have.

[1] Although he had stated his intention of taking a job in the US, he had not told me of when this would happen, and had promised to send the children down to visit me in the September holidays. He had persuaded me in England, before we returned to Australia to visit his family,  to let him put them on separate passports, saying it was not fair they should be on mine. This suggests that he anticipated a move when he would take them out of Australia without my consent. When he abducted them, my lawyer was still trying to negotiate through his lawyer re joint custody and some sort of financial settlement to give me some support while studying so I could have a career and become self-supporting.



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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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