Winter Tales: Activist and Author

This is a transcript of the talk I gave at Winter Tales, an event at the National Library of Australia, on 14 June 2015. 

In both being an activist and being a writer, the goal is to make the darkness visible, to bring some hidden, unknown  or contested aspect of experience into the light.

As an activist, one is trying to foment change, to influence others in the direction that looks as though it will lead to a better world.

As a writer, one is always dealing with change, always trying to capture the moment of awareness as characters move from one moment to the next – whether that moment concerns the lifting of an eyebrow or the shifting of an empire – each moment moves into a changed world from the moment before.

When I was sixteen, I wrote a satirical piece for the school magazine about how badly the boys danced. I signed it Fourth Form Female, not only to hide behind a nom de plume, but also to claim a generic multiplicity – this could be any fourth form female, I was speaking for all of us. This, I can now see, is the voice of an activist, the social commentator and change agent for whom the issue is never centrally about the self but about the group, about improving things for everyone.

At university, New England from 60 to 62 – think the 50s in Sydney – I ought to have got a degree in activism.  I edited the student newspaper, I started a Ban the Bomb group, an Abschol group which attempted to engage with the local Aboriginal people, a discussion forum entitled God, Sex and Society and a college magazine. I was also on the SRC and nominally in a Drama group. And they’re only the ones I can remember. The Labor Club was an intimidating group of men, most of whom came from the top private schools in Sydney and I didn’t go near it. All the pieces I wrote for the student paper were activist in intention – I had a particular focus on the rights of students in the antiquated college system.

Jung said that the greatest influence on a child is the unlived life of the parent.

When I heard this from my Jungian analyst friend, bells clanged. Loudly. My father claimed the mantle of ‘radical’ because, in a sense, he longed for it. Yet, with a couple of rare exceptions like the Rosenberg wreath night described in IMMH, and leaving aside the innovative and radical nature of his work as a historian, his activism was acted out in board rooms, the university council, in thumping the table encircled by other men in suits, by being the maverick. I took this inheritance to the streets over Vietnam and also to my life as a women’s liberationist when even our homes became ideological arenas of confrontation.

Vietnam came into my consciousness in 1964 when I was 22 and I had my real training ground in the years following. I learnt about street politics, about refining which slogan to use to engage the most people, about how to arrange events in order to secure the maximum amount of publicity.

It’s instructive, however, to notice that I did not write in this Vietnam period. Nothing.

But with WL – June 1970 here in Canberra – I began writing very quickly. There were papers for conferences and speeches I worked on and then the marvellous WL newspaper, Mejane, was launched in Sydney and they published everything I sent them. All the pieces I wrote were about the changes I was experiencing. I can’t grace these pieces with the term ‘memoir writing’ because they were certainly not from a place of considered reflection but I was  exploring the kind of raw material and exploration of the self that animates memoir.

In 1978, I left teaching and began work in the Canberra Women’s Refuge, now called Beryl. A few weeks after I started, a family arrived from interstate seeking protection from what we would now call child sexual abuse in the family. The perpetrator was a seventeen-year-old step-brother and the abused were girls aged ten and six. As far as the workers knew, it was the first time that this had happened and we found that we had no idea how to deal with it.

Since the inception of WL, I had always been particularly engaged with any issues around rape – the idea of sex, on which I put an extremely high value, being non-consensual and violent in intention, was something that appalled me to the core. So I was the one who stepped forward to try to help this family. A long story .... the upshot was that I came to this library to find some helpful wisdom and instead found an eighty-five year narrative, from Freud in 1896 to the clinicians of the twentieth century up to 1980, that was so shocking I wrote FDR in order to deal with it. All that clinical literature blamed the daughters and/or the mothers – the strongest judgement made of the perpetrators, the trusted family men? They had ‘poor impulse control’ – and even that was only mentioned occasionally.

FDR is an activist book – it’s goal is to alert the world to the existence of child sexual abuse which was at the time utterly invisible – but it was also the beginning of my life as a serious writer. It’s where the activist and the writer first really met. And it’s where I discovered the interiority needed to write, as compared with the extroversion I exerted as an activist.

Back in those days, many of us were fascinated by the paranormal. We looked for direction, for ways to understand ourselves and what was happening to us, in astrology, numerology, the tarot and palm-reading. With hindsight, I think our lives in the feminist vanguard were so unexpected and uncharted that we needed signposts to hang onto. Within astrology there’s an aspect called nodal astrology – I looked it up – ‘the path to your life purpose’ is encoded in the North and South Nodes of the Moon in your chart. The point of this is to tell you that my nodal journey was about moving from intense extroversion and outer engagement to introversion and solitude. I was appalled at the time, couldn’t imagine a worse fate but now – the writer having come into her own – I often pay good money to go away and be alone for lengthy periods.

FDR is an angry feminist analysis of patriarchal horrors masquerading as academic findings. But the creative writer in me kept breaking through. The Prologue is fiction – or what might now be called faction. I also used my own poetry and that of Adrienne Rich and Marge Piercy whom I read constantly at that time because poetry was necessary to express the depth of my outrage and my yearning for a world beyond rape.

FDR was published in England and America in 1984. Through the rest of the eighties and into the nineties, I wrote a great deal of poetry and I spent a lot of time trying to ban the US spy bases that dot the central spine of our country like deformed vertebra.

By the late nineties, I was increasingly writing prose, short pieces about my mother, my childhood, my memories.

I’ve always read fiction, I’ve learnt to understand much of the world from fiction and I have dreamt for decades of writing fiction. It is the artistic form which most sustains me. So I bring to my non-fiction, to memoir, the techniques of fiction, the techniques that can animate a scene, that try to take the reader into the action.

Much has been written and said about memoir and what it is. There’s a field now, sometimes called ‘life writing’ which covers the gamut from the most factual autobiography through various forms of self-reflective writing, all the way to ‘journaling’.

Autobiography purports to tell ‘a whole life’ in a digestible form. It usually has a chronological, factual framework, and is often focused on achievement. Three feminist versions of this form are Susan Ryan’ Catching the Waves, Anne Summers’ Ducks on the Pond and Wendy McCarthy’s Don’t Fence Me In. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘writing as therapy’ – a very worthwhile activity in my opinion – but worthwhile for the self, not the rest of us. Writing as therapy is private, messy, circular and perhaps deeply embarrassing when read years later. It’s the reason some of us will probably destroy our seventies and eighties diaries.

So what’s in between, in the realm of Memoir?

Memoir as we have come to know it over the last twenty years is about a slice of the writer’s life.  It can be about anything ... Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters where he ruminates on his HIV status or any number of Vietnam veterans’ accounts of their period of service and its aftermath. These memoirs are deeply reflective, concerned with making meaning of the particular slice of life which has demanded the writer’s full attention.

I’ve been asked why I wrote IMMH – in a ‘why would you go there?’ kind of tone. The answer is that it was The Story within me. It demanded to be written. I couldn’t not write it. And it was not painful. I had been preparing for it for a long time – doing therapy so that I could see clearly, practising writing so that I had the skills.

 I think of IMMH as a ‘foundational memoir’. I’ve coined this term for memoirs which explore where the writer / protagonist / narrator came from but more importantly, what particular factors shaped them. Examples of such memoirs are Gabrielle Carey’s In My Father’s House where she reflects on suicide and its meanings, Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite Your Tongue which explores the impact of her mother’s fanatical censorship activism and Jane Alison’s Sisters Antipodes with its brilliant unfolding of the twisted psychological development of some of the children that flows from two sets of parents swapping partners.

I think foundational memoirs need to be replete with social, historical and psychological strata, to position them in their time and place.

I’ll READ a section so you can judge ...

Away from school, the Communist business could actually be funny—like the day the man came to put on the telephone. Up until this day, we’d used the red wooden phone box on the corner. The phone took two pennies which made a satisfying clunk and crash as the phone gulped them down. We had long ago discovered that the flimsy metal sides of a roll of sticky-tape were the exact dimensions of the two pennies. It was a favourite game of ours to use the tartan-printed disks to ring any XM number—Exchange Mosman, presumably—we found in the phone book. We’d dial the number, listen spellbound to the ring-tones, sputter when someone answered, hang up with a crash and burst out of the phone box running and gigging hysterically, scared we might somehow get caught if we stayed in the box.

It had been decided that the phone, our very own phone, would be placed in the tiny room that held Dad’s desk, a three-quarter size spare bed and a large storage cupboard painted a disgusting khaki. This room was called The Study or The Spare-room, as suited the occasion. The day the man came, actually carrying the black phone in one hand and his bag of tools and cable in the other, Mark and I were home.

In here, said Mum, leading the way from the front door to the study. She pushed the door open and then, quickly, closed it with a whoosh.

Er, no, not there. She turned in the narrow hallway. The man stood back.

Er, here, up here, said Mum, and led him through the living room, past my room, to the main bedroom.

There, she said, pointing at Dad’s bedside table. Put it there.

Are you sure? the man asked.

Yes, she said, glancing back down the hall.

I crept back to the study and opened the door. The bed was covered with leaflets and booklets, the Communist ones. Dad must have been in the midst of sorting them. It made me think of the secret books, the row behind some other books on the lowest shelf in the living room which we were not to go near.

When Dad came home and heard the story of the phone, he laughed. He went and looked at the papers on the bed and laughed some more. Serves us right, he said. We’ll just get woken up by the bloody thing.

Mark and I hoped it would ring. Often. Our very own number, XM5929.

While my mother has a role in that excerpt, one of my major problems in writing was that she was so often a blank, a non-presence. And then there was Alison, the dead baby, who was literally not there.

Drusilla Modjeska, in her essay Memoir Australia writes: The word memoir is linked etymologically to the idea of mourning through memor, which carries meanings to do with mindfulness and remembering; the shadow left by the dead is as much the terrain of memoir as the quest for the self.

In my first draft of the book, there were three books competing with each other – my coming-of-age story, my relationship with my father and the story it ultimately turned out to really be about, my mother and her presence in our family. As I honed it down to focus on my mother who died in 1998 and as the mystery hanging over the death of Alison became the questing spine of the book, it was clear that the ‘shadows left by the dead’ that Drusilla evokes were central to my story.

Margaret Atwood has written: all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down ... by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.

At a family gathering last year, one of my daughters created a lyrical family-tree poster. Because of my book, my mother who had been almost completely excised from our family discourse and my dead sister Alison who had never existed in it – these two people – were there on their own branch among the leaves and apples.

A psychotherapist friend wrote to me when she’d only read a few pages: The very first sentence - There is in my family a grave that was never visited  ... [is] an opening that goes to the heart of absence and makes it present. So present.

These considerations of absence and the dead take me back to where I began – the urge of the writer to make the darkness visible, to bring into the light that which has been hidden, to make it live again.

Raimond Gaita, in answer to a question about Romulus, My Father, said, I wanted to get it right, true. I was trying to make the feelings true, to see things right, to understand things right.

In my voice these words sound clunky, but in Gaita’s voice they have a tremulous resonance, we know what he means and it’s what I was trying to do in honouring  the family I grew up in, in balancing eros and logos, the emotional and relational with the reflective and meaning-making. To get it right, to convey the ambience, the dramatic horrors and the subtle shifts by which we navigated our daily world of living with a syndrome that had no name.

So while the impetus for IMMH was extremely strong, it belonged wholly to the writer. My activist piped up after it was published, saying, It’s important to tell stories of mental illness, we must reduce stigma.

That’s true and I’m happy to push that line, but it came after the event and it wasn’t why I wrote.

One could argue that creative writing, whether fictional or non-fictional, that engages with the difficulties and tensions in our culture is always a form of activism – but to work, it must come from the creative wellspring of writing, not from the river of didacticism.

I’ll finish with a brief mention of my next book. It’s a memoir about my relationship to the Vietnam War. In my protest days, I had a particular experience that I think put me under a spell and I have, ever since, felt connected to that country in ways I can’t fully describe. So, of course, I’m writing a book to work it out!

The other part of this book that really engages me is connected to the PTSD veteran narrative. I know we’re all familiar now with that trope but I want to convey the act of telling such stories, the minutiae of the steps a veteran goes through in bringing that bit of darkness into the light.  

I’ll READ a small example.      Ron has a truly deeply gravelly voice – see if you can hear it.

In a voice that kept breaking, stopping and then going again, he said, There’s a lot of bad memories with it, but it’s good now that I can ... for years and years I couldn’t ... talk about it. Not at all. People hardly ever asked about it ... and when they did, I just couldn’t ... I was just so pissed off about the whole thing ...the way it had finished ... and the attitude of the people here. I felt like a fuckin’ idiot. I didn’t see anyone for years and years that I knew there. I had no contact with any Vietnam veterans.


He found a kind of home in the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, a bunch of strong men, outspoken, given to confronting the system, to slapping Green Bans on sites they thought ought to be saved.


I’d just moved to Sydney from Melbourne and I was down in the Trades Hall there. They were talking about the Entertainment Centre. There was a call for submissions to different groups in the community – What are we going to call it? They were looking for a name and one name suggested was the O’Keefe Centre, after Johnny O’Keefe, the entertainer. And this bloke got up and said, ‘Ah, no, you can’t call it that – he entertained all those bastards over there in Vietnam!’


He’s going on with all this drivel and in the end I put my hand up. They wanted to hear from me because I’d just lobbed from Melbourne. I said to this bloke, Are you quite finished, mate? Have you got anything more to say? Good – well, now I’ll have a go. I happen to be one of these bastards that was over there.


They’re all going ??!!*? I said, Mate, you’re talking about blokes who were nineteen, twenty years old ... Now how many smart nineteen and twenty year olds do you find working around on building sites, that know what’s going on? That understand what’s happening to them? How many? And you reckon we’re a pack of bastards and we were responsible? You want to think again – have a good look at yourself – before you start bagging us.


Anyway, it got overwhelming applause. Steve Black was the secretary at the time and he said to the bloke, ‘We’ll strike what you had to say from the minutes’, and they apologized. Blokes came up to me afterward, blokes I didn’t know, and they were buying me beers and saying, ‘Good on you’. It was quite an arrival!


So now that I’m writing a book that encompasses my Vietnam days, all those protest politics in the streets, we could perhaps say the Activist and the Writer have found the place of the long lunch inside me. They’re spending all afternoon together in the way of long lunches but, when we look closely, we can see that the Activist is bathed in nostalgia, lounging back watching, while the Writer is – very happily – doing all the work.