The nature of the crime

My oldest brother has written an extended essay, which he describes as a biography of our father, the details, the background to and arrival of our parents in Australia.

It is beautifully written and for me a pleasure to read however disturbing. The disturbing aspect for me relates as much to what my brother writes as to what he excludes.

I do not feel at liberty to write about this essay in detail yet, other than to reflect on Jim Murdoch’s comment that ‘the moment we start selecting we start fictionalising’. As well, I think of Paul Lisicky’s words, that for something ‘to shudder with mystery’ we need sometimes to hold something back. Lisicky uses the word ‘elision’.

My brother has a tendency to write about the ‘we’ of it all, referring to us, his brothers and sisters, as though he is a spokesperson for us all, a dangerous thing to do, given that as a group of individuals we are unlikely to see things the way he does.

But he is the first born and as the first born I suspect he claims that privilege, especially in so far as he is writing about the early years of his own life and the experience of our parents even before any of the rest of us were born.

He can claim that privilege here, but beyond it he sets himself up for challenge.

He reckons that the piece is not yet fully edited yet and for this reason wants me to keep it to myself, namely not to share this knowledge with my siblings, but I suspect that he is as fearful, as I am fearful, of how our siblings might react to any of our writing that purports to chronicle family history.

We see things so differently from one another. My oldest brother is big on ‘facts’ and big on genealogy, whereas I prefer the minute detail that emerges from my memories. My brother occasionally offers the detail of his own memories but mostly he prefers to rely on ‘written evidence’, which he considers to be much more reliable as evidence about what ‘really’ happened.

And so there are these letters that our grandparents wrote from prison in which they make no reference to their alleged crimes and write only about basic necessities or the hope that their children are well.

But I know the nature of the crime. I have the person cards that the historian and researcher, Barbara van Balen, gathered for me from the archives in Amsterdam. The person cards detail exact times of imprisonment and the charge. My brother does not want to talk about the charge, at least not yet.

He does not want to look too closely at the incest that preceded even his birth. Our grandparents were imprisoned around the time our parents were married and around the time this brother first entered the world.

What a legacy.

Here is a photo of my grandparents and father when he was a baby, well before it all happened.

Broken Teeth

When I run my tongue along the top of my teeth I find jagged edges. If I push down hard, bits crumble away. I try not to smile or laugh in front of other people. Whenever I speak I take my hand to my face and cover my mouth. I rest the tip of my fingers on my top lip so no one can see the yellow-brown incisors or the black line that runs down the centre of my front tooth.

My sister has a gold tooth in front, half her front tooth, shiny gold. She does not put her hand to her mouth. Her teeth are in good order, even with the gold. The gold is a sign of good repair. She does as she is told. She goes to the dentist. But I keep my pain a secret.
I know when the ache is coming, when the raw nerve pulses underneath the flaky layer of tooth, all that is left of my big back munching teeth. I smear on a glob of ice-cold toothpaste, minty fresh, as a way of killing the pain.

At night, I cover my head with my pillow. I roll from side to side. I roll my head over and over to block out the ache. I do not go to the dentist because the dentist will look into my mouth and he will say,
‘What have we here? You haven’t been cleaning your teeth, have you?’ And I will blush. The roots of my hair will tingle; a shiver will run down from my scalp to my armpits. They will itch and prickle. And I will want to shut my mouth fast, snap like a turtle, snap. Get your hands out of there, I will say. Do not touch me.
‘If he touches you scream,’ my sister says.

My father touches her. I know. I see him at night. He comes into our bedroom. We sleep in beds one beside the other. Up and down beds. Long brown beds. Good strong solid beds. There is a passageway that runs between them, a dark river of space, which my father fills in the night when he visits. The door opens and he pads in bare feet across the open river of floor.
I turn to face the wall. I squeeze my eyes shut. I am an aching tooth, the raw nerves exposed, waiting for my turn.

But he does not come to me. He goes to her. The rustle of blankets, the murmurs, the sighs. The soft in-breath, out-breath. The silence. And then he is gone. My sister snuffles in her bed. She cries silent tears.

My sister is the chosen one. My sister with her crooked teeth, her plump body and her mouse brown hair. She is the one he loves. More than me, he loves her. More than me he chooses her, and more than me she grows fat and full of him.