The threat within ourselves

Inside the front cover of a paper back copy of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice –faded yellow with its
spine held together by sticky tape – someone has scratched out the first
initial of my older sister’s name and changed it to a younger sister’s
initial.  The book was presumably a
hand-me-down for school.

Underneath my sister’s name, my father has written the words:
GEKKEN EN DWAZEN SCHRYVEN HUN NAMEN OP DEUREN EN GLAZEN, which translates into
‘People who are silly and mad write their names on doors and windows’.
My sister gave me the book recently.  She’s going through a phase where she wants
to rid herself of all negative energy and the words on the front cover of this
book exude just that, at least they do for her. 
For me these words are intriguing and given I do not have many
examples of my father’s handwriting, they’re a treasure.  However much I might disagree with the sentiment
they express. 
When I was little I wondered what these words could mean.  How could it be such a stupid thing to write
your name down on the front of your books? 
Or maybe my father was having a go at those who write their names on
trees and walls and fences, graffiti artists and the like. 
They do more than inscribe their names, but certainly the
mark or tag of a graffiti artist seems to be an important part of their work.
 I still write my name
in the front of my books, mostly as a territorial thing.  I claim this book as my own.  Not that it helps the book to stay in my
possession. I am an inveterate book lender and even though I once tried to keep
a list of all books borrowed out to others so that I might remind the borrowers
in the fullness of time they have my book, I forget to fill in the list.  It’s incomplete and then I forget where I put
it. 
So my books with my silly name in the front cover are scattered
all over in other people’s libraries. 
As long as they’re loved, I say. 
I made my annual pilgrimage to the Freud conference
yesterday.  The two main speakers from
Germany spoke about fundamentalism, fanaticism and religion to a large
audience. 
The topic was daunting, not least because during the
introductions the conference organiser told us that ‘for reasons of security
for this particular conference’ they would lock the doors during sessions and a
body guard would protect the premises at all times. 
She told us this in case we decided to go outside during the
breaks.  She told us this in order to
remind us that should we go outside during one of the breaks we should return
at least ten minutes before the proceedings resume so that we are not locked
out.
Moreover, the conference organiser told us to keep our nametag
on at all times. 
‘If the guard sees you without your nametag, you will be
escorted from the building’.
 
I call this overkill.
 
Some said it was necessary. 
Maybe it was.  A duty of care, one
person told me during the break.  Maybe
again it was, but it also created an aura of the enemy, the ‘other’, the one
lurking outside who might at any moment enter with a machine gun or hand
grenade to attack us in our seats or to take us hostage. 
And so we experienced the effects of terrorism first hand, albeit
at a distance.  After all, terrorism is
designed to terrify.
This contrasts with other injunctions from government
spokespeople and the like who say, go about your business as usual and don’t be afraid.  Be alert, but unafraid.
The conference made me more afraid than I might otherwise
have been but even though the threat of terrorism is real and there are good
reasons for all of us to pay attention, the greatest fear I reckon lies in
ourselves. 
Our own tendencies to look at life in terms of the black and
the white, insiders and outsiders, clashes of identity.
During the breaks I managed to speak to many people, some old
acquaintances, others new, but always I had the sense – as I so often have at
conferences – that we are ships who pass in the night. 
Some of these people I saw last year at the Freud conference
and I will see them again in a year at the next Freud conference. 
Conferences like this one that happen every year have the
quality of Christmas family get togethers. 
Not everyone in the family comes, but there are enough of us
who get together, along with a few extras, occasional friends or extended family
members, to create a strange tension. 
It reminds me of the energy my sister talks about from the
front cover of her book. 
The pride and prejudice of it all. 
I suspect my father’s words might reflect his own
difficulties in acknowledging his identity. 
He was proud of his name, the same name as that of his father, his
father’s father, his father’s father’s father going back through the
centuries. 
But he could not wear his name with the confidence he might
have liked, given his decimation through war and family trauma, and so he could
not tolerate the idea that his children should wear their own names with pride.  
Especially not his daughters.

  

Nothing remarkable here.

At a dinner last night, one of our hosts began to talk about
his memories from childhood. 
His was an English education, boarding school from the age of
twelve, a life I have long wondered about, but then I asked his wife about her
education and my curiosity tripped me up. 
What was it like for you as a child? I asked.  Too broad a question perhaps but her response
was immediate.
‘I had an ordinary, a normal childhood, nothing remarkable there.’
My friend went on to say something about her mother as a
divorcee and that this was not the thing in those days, but that was all.  
I sensed a trapdoor shut with the words, ‘Mine was an
ordinary childhood’.
It puts me in mind of the times when my husband and I once interviewed
would-be nannies for our children.  If
any one of them uttered the words ‘I love children’ I struck them off my list.
I distrust such sentiments. 
Who ‘loves’ children and who has an ordinary childhood? To me there is
no such thing.
Childhood is that magical and terrifying place where life is
its hardest, full of pitfalls, full of tricky and incomprehensible adults.  Full of the hypocrisy of life, when even if
you can figure out something of what’s going on, the rest is still in
darkness. 
To me there’s a hole in a narrative when someone reports on
a happy childhood.  A happy
childhood.  A normal childhood, an
ordinary one.   There’s no such thing, I
reckon, though of course there are degrees.
My mother spent our lives insisting that her childhood was happy. The oldest of seven children, the first girl with only one female
rival, a sister, one of twins, six years younger, my mother was the apple of
her father’s eye. 
She told us stories endlessly of how she lived in a
two-storey house on the Marnixplein in Holland where even though it froze over
in wintertime there were always canals and lakes on which to skate. 
I sensed my friend did not want to go into any details about
her childhood, after all it was so normal, but something tells me there was much more
to it.
Life doesn’t begin in young adulthood when we step out into
the world.  It begins the
day we’re born, and the richest moments occur in those extraordinary years before we reach what people call
adulthood. 
Virginia Woolf talks about them as ‘moments of being’.  The moment when memories coalesce to form a
crystal of images that can take narrative form and become something like the
tip of an iceberg, underneath which the rest of our life’s memories form.
They point to something. 
Even a statement as bland as ‘I had a normal childhood’, hints at its
opposite. 
An ordinary childhood is a restricted childhood, one in which
a child is discouraged from going deeply into whatever experience life might
offer. 
I can see it in the form of one of my teachers, Miss
Fitzgerald, a woman who kept on her coat during classes in the grade three
classroom.  She spoke in a thick Scottish
accent and had an aura that made her classes the best behaved in the
school.  She gave us an ordinary
education, one that refused to feed our curiosity and imaginations. 
An ordinary childhood is a repressed one. 
Last night at the dinner, for a moment I felt like a poor
relative.  My friends come from other
parts of the world, from places far afield and perhaps some of my interminable
cultural cringe rose to the surface when I thought once more of the lack of
glamour of my own Australian education.
But then I have to check myself. 
We’ve all of us – those lucky enough or unlucky, as the case
may be, to have had an  education – experienced something of the Mrs
Fitzgerald’s of this world, the strict and sour women who control their classes
by instilling fear. 
And whenever it happens, there’s still a story to tell. 

There is no such thing as an ordinary childhood.