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: https://www.facebook.com/memoryandyou/

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 https://www.perfectwordsediting.com

Or on my Facebook page, which has an email button: https://www.facebook.com/memoryandyou/

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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Re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness

Re-reading great books is one of my favourite escapes. There are many that I’ve kept in my small library that I revisit. My re-reading record is for The Lord of the Rings; 13th re-read coming up.

The one I’ve just re-read is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin. This remarkable book was published in 1969, has won major awards for science fiction, and is regarded as a masterpiece. Oddly, it’s the only one of le Guin’s I’ve read, and I’m not strongly motivated to read others of hers, as I fear I would be disappointed.

I first read it when I was in labour with my son, in 1980. It was a protracted, painful labour, and the story allowed me to stay sane and to escape to another world, although it was a dark winter world, which reflected my difficult labour. So it has always kept a special magic around it for me. Another magic thing about it is its title. It comes from the symbol for yin and yang. The words come from a Lay that is part of the mystical  culture of the planet called Gethen (aka Winter), where all living things are part of a whole:

Light is the left hand of darkness

And darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

Together like lovers in kemmer, 

Like hands joined together,

like the end and the way.

This Lay is spoken by Estraven, the noble politician of Gethen who believes in the mission of the alien, Genly Ai, who comes from a distant planet that is part of a confederation of 83 planets, and hopes to persuade the governments of this winter world to join the union.  When Estraven and Genly discuss wholeness and dualism, and the difficult subject of sex, they are sharing a tiny tent in the middle of the ice, in their flight from imprisonment and to fulfil the purpose of Genly’s mission. Estraven is the only Gethenian who believes in and is loyal to Genly, and it is not till  Estraven rescues him from a winter gulag and they flee together for nearly three months in almost impossible conditions, that Genly comes to trust Estraven.

I mentioned the difficult subject of sex. Apart from it always being difficult (but that’s another story) it is extremely so in this world, for both Estraven and Genly. The Gethenians are androgynous, and for a few days every few weeks they go into kemmer, or active sexuality, and take either male or female form. Whereas, as they perceive it, Genly (and by implication all the people of the worlds he comes from) are in permanent rut. So when Estraven goes into kemmer while they share their impossible journey, they confront their differences and their desires, and choose not to enact them. This is how Genly sees it:

I expect it will turn out that sexual intercourse is possible between Gethenian double-sexed and Hainishnorm one-sexed human beings, though such intercourse will inevitably be sterile. Estraven and I proved nothing except perhaps a rather subtler point.

[He feels Estraven’s moodiness, and asks him what he has done wrong. Estraven explains that he is in kemmer and is trying to avoid him. Genly agrees.]

For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of our friendship rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and already so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. … it was from the difference that that love came; and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch.

This reminds me of the shocking moment in the iconic 70s movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, when the alien, stunningly played by David Bowie, makes love with his Earth woman, and in the heat of passion, inadvertently reverts to his alien form. Difference is attractive, but when differences are extreme, intimacy may vanish and be overwhelmed by fear.

The bond that slowly forms between Estraven and Genly is one of the most memorable things in this novel. And it ends tragically, although Genly’s mission is fulfilled, thanks to Estraven’s devotion. Another memorable thing is the winter landscape, which is described in all its permutations, a pervasive, relentless, almost unbearably bleak and icy world, with a fierce, alien beauty. Another thing that fascinates me is the philosophy. I’ve already mentioned the whole that is composed of light and darkness. A fascinating episode, before Genly’s enforced exile, is his visit to the Foretellers. They have a religion called Handdara, “without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without creed…”. What they do have is a practice of Foretelling, where they go into a trance, which they call untrance, involving self-loss through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Genly asks a question: “Will this world Gethen be a member of the Ekumen of Known Worlds, five years from now?” After a long, terrifying time/space, the answer comes: “Yes, yes, yes!”. Later, when Genly has recovered, he questions the chief seer about the practice. Faxe explains that the Handdara don’t want answers, and that  the reason they have practiced and perfected Foretelling is “To exhibit the perfect uselessness  of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”  He goes on to explain that ignorance is the ground of thought, unproof the ground of action, and that there is really one question that can be answered — that we shall die.

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.

I find this profound, unanswerable. It is not knowing that keeps us alive, that makes living worthwhile.

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Living Creatively: I

Recently I’ve been thinking about my life, all the twists and turns it has taken. It has opened out now into a very gentle and lovely place, in a beautiful valley near the Border Ranges, which divide New South Wales from Queensland. Dominating the valley are the remains of a 20 million year old volcano, now called Wollumbin Mount Warning. This mountain is most unusual in its shape, and in the magnetic effect it has on the district. It was called Mount Warning by Captain Cook, because it was his first sight of land as he sailed up the coast, and is said to be the first peak to catch the morning sun. Wollumbin was added to acknowledge the indigenous groups of the area, although there is controversy among them over the authenticity of this name. One story says it means Cloud Catcher, which is most apt, as it often trails clouds around it, like  a woman’s fascinator. This intriguing word originally meant “a light scarf of fine knitting over the head and round the neck, [worn] instead of an opera hood when going out at night.” Another meaning for Wollumbin is “fighting chief of the mountains”. I think it has both moods, and many more.

The image above is my pastel painting of it, done early this year.

Living a creative life is difficult, as we all know, when we have to support ourselves and our families and earn a living. Few people in the creative arts are able to earn a living from their art. Most of us do all sorts of odd jobs or more permanent ones to make end meet. The downside of that is that it can take up a lot of one’s time, and may drain or suppress one’s creative energy.

Life can lead us on all sorts of byways. But more than that, the central purpose of life, for those of us who have children, is raising our children and helping them to find their feet. For women, traditionally, this has been their main occupation. As we have shifted, in developed countries, from the traditional monogamous family where the husband is the bread earner and the wife stays at home, women have had to balance child bearing and raising with working as joint income earner, or in many cases, as single parent and sole earner.

For me, this pattern has meant that I didn’t start to unfold my creative self outside of growing and loving my children and making ends meet until I was in my late 50s. When my son left school and began work, I went back to university. I decided I didn’t want a career, and it was too late anyway, I wanted to tell my story. So I wrote an autobiographical novel and theorised my life in the framework of the bourgeois family (more on that another time). Then I had a couple of years off, working in frail aged care, then went back to do a PhD. This time I combined my own life writing, interpretations of a medieval Japanese novel written by a woman and set in a polygamous aristocratic court society, and the theories of two radical French philosophers. My thesis was titled The Origami of Desire: Unfolding and Refolding the Desiring Self (f).

I have published several articles and essays from this. My next project is — finally — to publish my childhood memoir, This Place You Know, which weaves my mother’s story and mine to tell the story of how our family broke apart and we lost ‘this place’ we loved. I have been writing and revising it for 20 years! I also have written a memoir of my young adulthood, called Loss: a Memoir, which I hope to publish. The first memoir is currently being edited by a literary editor, who has given me great help in bringing it to be the best it can be.

So creativity can be a broken path. But it is very important to keep returning to it, not to lose sight of it or give up on it. Little things help, like writing this blog. I also do pastel painting, like the one of the valley above. I am in a pop-up art trail next week, and hope to sell some of my paintings so I can go on and paint some more.

What do you do to keep your creativity alive? I’d love to hear your stories.

 

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Bringing History to Life Again

Three years ago I wrote a post called Bringing History to Life, about Hilary Mantel’s two masterpieces, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both Man Booker prizes. I fell in love with them three years ago, on a Christmas visit to family in the west, and I’ve recently re-read them. I love re-reading books that are so fine in texture, rich in description and characterisation, that create an imagined (in this case historical) world you can enter and inhabit for a time. This is the next best thing to the Tardis; perhaps better, because you are not embodied or materialised there, so you are safe, in this case from decapitation or the torture wrack, or Henry VIII’s wrath, or Anne Boleyn’s tantrums and scheming. Or, in my case, from the seductive power of Thomas Cromwell’s formidable intellect and his subtly charismatic ability to manage people and to direct the course of affairs at a high level, while seeming to serve those who have greater rank and power than him. Of course, we know, he came to a bloody end, like those Anne Boleyn and several of her admirers who are framed as her lovers had at his hands, when he was at the height of his influence in the court. Despite his machinations, we are able to forgive him because he is doing what Henry, his master, wants; his own integrity is somehow not corrupted by the fact that he is raising people to power then bringing them down when their star is eclipsed by Henry’s shifting desires and whims. So there is a knife edge morality in this book, which doesn’t judge, but allows  you to take sides as the wind shifts, and to understand why Cromwell acted as he did, even though you can’t necessarily understand or accept Henry’s motivation, or the way people are taken up, used, then discarded.

We have long awaited the promised third book in this historical saga. It seems that it is still coming: http://blogs.abc.net.au/wa/2015/02/hilary-mantel-reveals-timing-of-her-next-book-and-whats-next-after-thomas-cromwell.html. There will be great excitement when it is released.

For now, I can’t add much more to my previous post on the two books, except to say that they seem to grow in richness and texture with each re-read. I also love the BBC dramatisation, Wolf Hall. Inevitably, with two big books crammed into 8 episodes, it is much abbreviated; but the superb settings, filming, and scripting, and above all the star performance by Mark Rylance (I fell for him even more than his print version in the books), well supported by a wonderful cast, including Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Claire Foy as Anne Bolyn, make it a model of historical TV drama .

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Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

the_narrow_road_to_the_deep_north_novel

This book has received accolades, and been awarded the Man Booker Prize and the Prime Minister’s literary award for fiction. Mostly, it has had rave reviews.

I am a dissenter. I had very mixed feelings as I read it. I won’t attempt to summarise the plot; many others have done that.

I think the middle part of the book is the great story. Flanagan tells the gruelling story of the Australian men who slaved to build the Thai-Burma railway during the Second World War — how they were driven to death, forced to work in impossible conditions, with only the most rudimentary tools, almost no food or clothing, beaten, treated as less than human. The focus is on individual men, and their commander, Dorrigo Evans, who is a surgeon and struggles to keep them alive, to care for them when they are ill and dying. He loves them, he sacrifices himself for them, he pleads with the Japanese commander and officers to spare them from brutal floggings and forced marches and work on ‘the Line’  when they are close to death; and yet he fails in his love, because every day more and more of them die.

He is a paradoxical man, for though he is a hero, selfless in his dedication, he does not believe in his own goodness. He becomes an actor in his own life, compelled to go on trying to save his men.

Everything about their procession felt to the doctor an immense charade, with his the cruellest character: the man who proffered hope when there was none, in this hospital that was no hospital but a leaking shelter made up of rags hung over bamboo, the beds that were no beds but vermin-infested bamboo slats, the floor that was filth, and him the doctor with almost none of the necessities a doctor needed to cure his patients. He had a greasy red bandana, a cap on an angle and a dubious authority with which to heal.

The characterisation of Dorrigo and his men is unflinching, showing them in all their motley humanity, unlikely heroes. The interpretation of their heroism is interesting and challenging. For they act, it is insisted, not out of essential goodness or even compassion, but out of a collective instinct to survive. This is more so, I think, for the men than for Dorrigo, because we are allowed a space where we can believe in Dorrigo’s love and self-sacrifice, even though he does not believe in it himself.

It had been a day to die, not because it was a special day but because it wasn’t, and every day was a day to die now, and the only question that pressed on them, as to who might be next, had been answered. And the feeling of gratitude that it had been someone else gnawed on their guts, along with the hunger and the fear and the loneliness, until the question returned, refreshed, renewed, undeniable. And they only answer they could make to it was this: they had each other. For them, forever after, there could be no I or me, only we and us.

Yet, I want to insist that there is love, compassion, in their small acts of kindness and tenderness. Sometimes, in this story, I feel there is too much analysis, too much insistence on the authorial point of view, which comes through in the interpretation of the men’s actions.

A bigger question for me hangs over the stories around the central war story. Dorrigo is again the main character, deeply flawed by his own lack of self belief. This is externalised in his marriage, which is hollow, because he has fallen in love with Amy, who is married to his uncle. He loses her but never gets over her, nor she him. Where I lose belief in the narrative is  the insistent characterisation of Dorrigo as a man who acts his own life. We are told he has become a national hero, famed for his war service and for his subsequent career as a surgeon. He is a philanderer, loved not only by his wife but by the women he seduces, yet none of it has meaning for him, not even his children. I find myself wondering, if indeed he is so lacking in self-belief, how he manages to sustain the life that he does.

Another aspect of the story that disturbs me is the portrayal of the Japanese officers. We are given their points of view, both during the building of the Line, and in the lives of some of them after the war. They tell us that they act as they do because of the equation that the Emperor is a god who must be obeyed at all costs, and that the Allied prisoners are less than human and deserve to suffer and die because they acted ignobly by surrendering rather than taking their own lives. There are gestures towards redemption in the post-war lives of a couple of them, but this is left unresolved. I question Flanagan’s licence to enter the consciousness of these Others and portray their motivation. How can he, or any of us, know how it was to be them, within that culture, at that time? How can we speak for them? I wonder what a Japanese reviewer would say of this book.

There are other things about the book I am disturbed or irritated by, but that’s enough for now! Many readers may disagree with me.

 

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