June 2017 archive

Yellow fingers

I’m due for my next pap smear later this week, that bi-annual event when the doctor takes up her silver speculum – her fingers of steel – and inserts it as far as she can to scrape off a small tissue sample to send off to the laboratory.

All of it designed as a preventative measure to rule out the possibility of cellular changes that might suggest the arrival of something dreadful like cancer.

I must have endured over twenty pap smears over the years given my age, if I do my calculations right and each time they become easier.

Even so there’s something in the process that causes me to hold my breath and gasp at the invasiveness of this procedure, this intrusion into my body that may be necessary if prevention is the aim, but nevertheless feels obscene.

When I was young in my mid twenties when I first took up the regular pap smear habit, given all the times I’d heard about the dangers sexually active women might encounter if they did not check our their inner workings regularly.

I was content to take myself off to see my then usually male GP who would leave the room to give me time to strip off my lower half of clothes and crawl onto the elected examination table and cover myself in the crisp starched sheets that were the main stay of the medical profession.

These days they tend to use towels and more recently I’ve noticed they prefer disposable sheets of material like paper for hygienic purposes. In any case there was always an attempt at modesty and the GP, my first regular GP once I’d left home and established myself as a grown up was a gentle kind man, who reeked of cigarettes and who donned the disposable gloves of his trade over his nicotine yellow fingers and always tried to engage in light conversation as he shifted the speculum into place.

Twenty or so pap smears later and I still have trouble in working out how best to position myself for this procedure. I need to be reminded every time. The way the doctor urges me to put my feet together sole to sole so that my knees spill out to either side, which apparently makes for easier access.

And what to do with my arms and hands? Let them rest by my side. Not once have I found it painful, though I recognise some women do, and perhaps the fact that I have learned to switch off my mind to this intrusion and float away on clouds of dissociation may have contributed to the extent to which I usually feel nothing during the procedure.

I learned this on my visits to the dentist as a child when I needed to switch off and float to the ceiling, to look down at the doctor whose white coat concealed the arms and gloved fingers of the monster who was about to intrude into my mouth with metal spikes and tweezers and all manner of unspeakable equipment, far worse than the speculum.

I shall try to stay awake during this next visit to my doctor. A woman for preference. A woman because somehow I imagine she is more understanding of this internal violation that we women must endure every two years if we are to stave off the horrors of other unwelcome guests.

It’s the intimacy mixed in with the coldness of steel; the clinical specificity of the doctor’s need to gather cell samples with the posturing required; the nakedness; the closeness to love making; to other forms of activity, like when you’re being raped and all those associations that turn the humble pap smear into an additional traumatic occurrence in a life that’s filled with occasions when the best thing you can do is dissociate.

I have the same sense when I’m writing. This same need to cut off from my emotions in the cold clinical way of a surgeon, so that my fingers can take up each word as it floats into my consciousness and put it down there on the page as it comes to me, not to react to that inner voice that recoils and tells me I must not write this.

I go in, invade my space, and come up with a sample that’s hopefully not cancerous, but a pointer to the illusion that, for a while at least, all is well.

On upsetting people

A sister rang to complain, I’d written a piece on my blog in which I’d used the names of living people.

I told her I had invented these names, but given it was a piece of memoir, why didn’t I explain I had made them up? she asked.

And can she trust me not to violate her privacy by using her name in any of my writing?

It’s thorny territory and I’ve been here so many times before, you’d think I’d get used to it. This ghastly position of knowing I upset people with my writing.

Not intentionally.

I make up names all over the place and do so out of respect for people’s privacy but also in order not to appropriate someone else’s identity.

People still feel betrayed.

As Helen Garner argues: ‘Writing …  like the bringing up of children, can’t be done without causing damage’.

Like most people, I prefer to be liked. I do not relish the rancour of people towards me, especially those who matter, my friends and family.

Nor do I enjoy the sense I get from time to time that I must choose: either my writing or my relationships.

Is it okay for me to put my writing out there given it might upset others because they feel I have misrepresented them or their story, even as I’m doing my best to tell my own?

‘You can’t write things without the people you write about feeling betrayed,’ the journalist Margaret Simons says following a conversation with Helen Garner.

So why does it make us flinch to be written about?

According to Garner, ‘it’s not so much the revelation of fact, as the feeling that somebody else is telling your story, and stating something without the justifying tone that you use yourself…You feel stripped and bare and you can’t say “Oh well that’s just me,” in that cosy way that one does.’

When someone writes about you, they use their own words, their own impressions. They look at you from the outside, whereas you can only see yourself from the inside. You can only imagine how you might come across.

In a recent radio interview with Philip Adams, Helen Garner challenged the idea that writers have no right to tell other people’s stories.

‘Who owns the stories anyhow?’ she asks. ‘Stories are not just bits of stuff we pick up on the street and can possess.’

Stories float around and are there for everyone.

Everyone and anyone is free to pick up these stories and make of them as they will.

That’s what writers do, they gather together the impressions that come to them as they write and try to shape them into a coherent narrative.

Whether it comes under the rubric of fiction or memoir, it’s still an effort to shape a story that resonates for the writer and hopefully will also resonate with readers who will likely experience the story differently from the way the writer first envisaged it.

I have written a memoir about aspects of my childhood. It’s been a long time in the making. It has undergone many transformations, but in the process I hope I have distilled something of the essence of what it was like for me as a child growing up in my particular family.

I write about my experience from my perception knowing full well that the way I see the world will be different from the way my siblings may have experienced events.

They will see the past from their vantage point, and that’s fine.

We all have the right to tackle our stories in our own way, without breaching one another’s right to privacy. Hence my use of fictional names.

I write to convey something of the emotional truthfulness of my life growing up during the fifties, sixties and early seventies in Melbourne, Australia, not as a statement of facts, but as a story.

I’m writing in an effort to explore what it was like for me as a small child, an adolescent and as a young woman in the flush of first loves.

I hope people can read my work with an open mind, and not get stuck in merely trying to establish facts.

Facts matter when we’re talking about concrete events and people and places. But when we tell stories, although the factual skeleton might need to be firm, the flesh around those facts will be different depending on who tells the story.

This is my version. And it’s only one version. There are likely to be many others. But I expect only a few will get written.

Some might be passed on by word of mouth; others might be transformed into visual art, into music or any other form that can convey something of the story.

Not one of us holds a monopoly.

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