Censored

In the year I turned ten, an older brother decided to create a photograph album in honour of our parents’ twentieth wedding anniversary. He opened it with pages that flashed back images of our parents’ wedding day in Haarlem, Holland in 1942, a windy grey day during the war, when everyone dressed in their finest in front of the Cathedral of St Bavo in the centre of Haarlem. 

Thereafter, this brother dedicated a single page to each of us children, beginning with my oldest brother. One or two photographs, each carefully placed on the page and around which my second oldest brother gave each of us a title. 

Under my oldest brother’s image he wrote the word ‘philanthropist’, a word whose meaning I could not fathom at ten, beside which in quotation marks in white ink on a black page, the words: ‘I hates everybody’. 

I do not remember the label ascribed to each one of us but there was one younger brother named ‘Nature Boy ‘and the sister below me my older brother named ‘Princess’.

Next to her image, my brother drew a window, in white ink on a black background. You knew you were looking from the inside to the outside as through this window you could see a shining star giving off light. 

My brother gave me the label, ‘poetess’, which suited me well. I wanted to be a poet. 

My older brother ascribed each of us some distinguishing feature right down to the then youngest, my baby brother, who featured in the album as a large baby over one year old in a round plastic bath tub. He looks up to the camera. 

A roly poly baby boy with a sweet face. And onto this image my older brother tacked a thin strip of paper to cover his baby brother’s genitals.

Onto this strip of paper he pencilled the word, ‘censored’.

 This decision made everyone laugh but I could never understand the need for such censorship even though I had already noticed the way the few men who featured naked in my father’s art books had fig leaves draped strategically over their men’s parts and the women, many more women who were fully naked, likewise had strips of material draped around their pubic areas. 

I went to see Hannah Gadsby perform the other night and she too remarked on the decision of the old masters to drape material around a woman’s lower half while her breasts tended to be fully exposed or one might pop out of a dress unbidden. 

Hannah Gadsby alerted me to the fact that this anomaly has stayed with us since those times. That we have elected to keep these images and to admire them for centuries and we tend not to consider the significance of such artistic decisions. 

Though I suspect serious historians, artists and anthologists might have wondered and drawn conclusions about these decisions and what they say about the culture of their times.

Hannah Gadsby’s take is exhilarating and exciting. Because she makes us look at things through fresh eyes, makes us wonder why for instance in one image she showed there is a woman eyes raised heavenwards, fully clothed behind her cello.

A beautiful instrument, and yet there as her music stand, a plump but short cherub with tiny wings and stubby penis, hands up, his palms flat to hold the score. 

Why that decision? Gadsby asks. Had they not yet invented music stands when clearly they’d managed to create the cello.

 Why all the cherubs? I ask.

 Must have something to do with the religion of the times and all the angels in heaven. But it strikes me whenever I see these images, I take them for granted.

I look at them as though their meaning is set in stone. 

In the past I have not questioned the way Hannah Gadsby questions today and when she questions she sets me wondering again about why for instance my brother decided to put that thin strip of paper over my baby brother’s penis. 

On the very last page of his album, my older brother also pasted a small square of paper on which he had printed a large black question mark. 

A question mark that allowed those in the know to recognise that our mother was, as we put it in those days, expecting.

She was expecting her tenth baby, her eleventh in fact if you consider her first daughter died at five months of age, three years after my parents had married during the Hunger Winter of war torn 1945. 

And the question mark suffered a similar fate, though my brother did not know this at the time he created his album.

The question mark signified another daughter who was still born on 19 November in 1962, soon after my tenth birthday.

And they named her Anna Maria. 

I can name her because she’s dead. 

I can’t name the others of my siblings to give them their privacy because in this brave new world where so much is open to view and so much can be written or arranged on the screen and page, we must still tread carefully so as not to offend. 

I first learned the word the word censored from the piece of paper over my brother’s baby penis. It stays with me still. 

Content Warning

It’s cropped up before.

I went to give a talk on autobiography at La Trobe university a few years ago and spent some time rehearsing with my daughter, who warned me I needed to offer trigger warnings to the students before speaking about my encounters with a paedophile in the park or about my experience of my father stalking the house at night in search of sexual comfort with his daughters.

It puzzled me then. It puzzles me less now, only I have trouble knowing when I need to introduce such warnings. Maybe it’s best to do so most of the time, if not simply as a warning to people who might be triggered, but more as a way of protecting myself from the criticisms that follow. Namely that I have added to someone’s load of trauma in speaking about my own experience.

It’s a troubling one. The place today where – over forty years ago I encountered a paedophile.

We’re urged to tell our stories and at the same time to find ways of talking about them that do not stream into the consciousness of another and stir up their memories of hideous experience. A visceral sensation that runs through their veins, as if it’s all happening again. Like a flash back.

At my other writing group last week, we workshopped a piece about my time as a university student when the then renowned Delys Sargeant took us for Social biology, a subject requirement of the social work course.

A few years later she ran a week-long workshop on sex. I was drawn to it like an animal to a water hole in drought, out of curiosity, not because I needed to know about the mechanics of sex – I was twenty-three years old by then and sexually active – but because I wanted to get a deeper understanding of the things behind sex, the stuff about desire.

I won’t repeat the story here other than to say my writing friends in the group were struck by the absence of specificity and detail about what it was like to live through those days of so-called sexual liberation, during the fading glory of the hippy era.

One woman suggested I do a poll within my online writing circles to help ‘jog my memory’.  So, I put up a post within a closed group telling people that I was writing memoir and had been thinking of some of the misogynistic expressions used in my day, the 1970s and 1980s, and how much we then took them for granted.

I asked if others had thoughts about such aphorisms and included two, one an expression used in relation to a woman who had not yet formed a relationship with a man: ‘She needs a good hosing out’.  And the other:‘Turn women upside down, and they all look the same.’

Comments and quotes from other women writers came in thick and fast with other examples. Some protested at the very post itself. That it was distressing to read these words. In the end the moderator, in her wisdom, took the post down because it had been triggering to some who had already been traumatised.

I can understand this, though a pattern emerges for me. One in which I find myself speaking about my experience and many people resonate, while a few others are distressed to the point, they ask me to stop, and then I become unsettled.

Like I’m back at school and have been caught out doing something bad, stealing from someone’s locker. Not that I ever did anything like this though in my primary years I shop lifted lollies from the milk bar and maybe that’s a better analogy.

I begin to feel as though I’ve been caught doing something bad even as I’m talking about the things that people said, not did, thirty, forty years ago, most typically men when I took such comments as givens.

There is a notion in psychoanalysis called après coup, or in German Nachtraglichkeit, meaning ‘afterwardness’, the notion that something can happen to you in childhood or adolescence, at a time when you have not fully grasped the significance of sexuality. For instance, your father can look at your body as you begin to develop breasts and a fuller body, with a particular expression and it means little to you though you register it and you feel uncomfortable. It’s only later in adulthood when something else happens, when someone approaches you in a sexual way and the memory flashes back to you, the leer on your father’s face. In childhood you could not receive or understand the message but in adulthood it makes more sense because by now you know about sex, and you’ve been on the receiving end of men’s sexual desire. Now it can seem all wrong, the thing that happened to you years ago, which you then slid into the box of forgettable events only to have it rear up again triggered by another event or words. Your body feels the effects even when at the time your mind could not comprehend.

So, it has been for me in recent years when my memories of the many aphorisms that men, even good friends, trotted out regularly throughout my teens and early adulthood, even into my thirties, expressions which I now recognise as objectifying and misogynistic.

‘She’s as dry as a nun’s nasty’. Dated now but still in my mind an expression that insults women who, for whatever reason, elect to keep themselves chaste.  And that is somehow seen to be depriving of the men who might lust after such women.

Writing this, the same shudder sweeps over me. Is it okay to be saying these things? These expressions from the past that were once commonplace, and these days are recognised as ‘rape talk’ and part of a culture that feeds the idea that sexual violence and predation is okay.

Perhaps that’s the essence of my struggle.

In raising the spectre of these memories. In writing the words that rattle around in my consciousness and memory like so many loose marbles, I stir up disturbance for people from more recent generations, including my own daughter, who sees things differently. Who recognise misogyny when they see it and call it out.

I’m too late to call it out now after thirty years even as it only now dawns on me, weighed down with the burden of decades of experience in which what was once considered normal is now recognised as anything but.

These things are commonplace and apply in lots of instances. People no longer talk about belting their children for misbehaviour like they might once have done, but men are still killing their women, at least one a week in Australia and still certain attitudes prevail that a man’s wounded pride or hurt feelings are enough to warrant the brutal murder of the woman who has offended him.

To imagine that I’m tarred with the same brush for speaking about the way it was in those days when we did not keep records of how many men killed their women because it was considered an unfortunate incident of domestic violence that couldn’t be stopped, is distressing.

These things can be stopped but only if we talk about them. But how do we talk about them without people feeling we’re doing the very thing they rail against?

Give a content warning, my daughter advises.

In future, I’ll try to remember.