Filthy fingernails and green leaves in fishbone

‘My truth doesn’t travel in a straight line, it zigzags, detours, doubles back.’ Abigail Thomas.

When she was eight, an ambulance took my eight year old sister to the Fairfield Infections Diseases hospital which was then a quarantine facility to guard against polio and tuberculosis. These diseases floated around my childhood consciousness in words I overheard on the lips of grownups. The way they took people from their homes, disrupted lives and whole families implicated in the contagion. 

At least rheumatic fever did not spread from person to person in the way of polio, but it erupted in overpopulated areas and unhygienic places. With hints at the contagion of dirt, even as we knew a modest amount built up resistance. 

Thomas Embling hospital for the criminally insane has replaced the infectious diseases hospital in Melbourne today. When you walk through parkland close by the Yarra River you can see the old buildings in their higgledy-piggledy glory, as if they are still trying to keep people at arm’s length. 

For many months my mother struggled to visit my sister in hospital, not only because of restricted hours but because her youngest still needed a pram and my mother had to endure a long walk beyond our primary school to the bus stop near Cotham Road and from there the yellow bus all the way to Ivanhoe.Then more walking. An eternity’s worth of time, so many houses to pass, so many strips of grassland, so many foreign sights before green pastures and eucalypts surrounding row upon row of wooden buildings came into view. 

Me and my sister among the hydrangeas before they hauled her away.

It comes back to me now during this most recent Covid pandemic alongside memories of my time at Heatherton psychiatric hospital, which was once used as a sanatorium. 

And all these places, these sanatoriums and quarantine stations bring to mind Janet frame’s Owls do Cry in which she writes about the fictional Withers family: Francie, Daphne, Toby and Chicks, dirty children. To be dirty was to be spurned and set aside like so much rubbish in need of removal.

‘Look at your fingernails,’ Mother Mary John said to me in my tenth year when she inspected my doily for needle work. A lace edged piece I had chosen; it was covered in deep crimson red poppies and blue cornflowers. The stamens were buttercup yellow. The colours sent thrills through me, so much I failed to notice the smear of grubbiness that inched its way into the linen gaps every time I stitched my corn flowers and poppies into place. Chain stitch round the edges, stamens in French knots, and green leaves in fishbone. 

I hid my hands behind my back as Mother Mary John scolded me for the dirty child I was. How was it most other children in my class had pink fingernails with white moon crescents at the base and clear white lines where the nail ended? None of them had the thick pencil line of black that sat as stubbornly as a bitumen road under each finger. 

Filth amazed me, the way it built up over the course of each week. From Saturday night when we each had a bath – our only bath – all the way through to the end of the week when I noticed other lines of black on my legs and arms, like ants crawling in disorder. My socks which started the week a dull white from too many washes, by the weeks end were brown with a build-up of dirt that crept through the gaps in my blue plastic sandals and turned to mud whenever it rained.

These things were a problem at school. At home with my sisters and brothers no one cared. No one checked my nails for the black lines, as my older sister dragged my long hair into tight plaits that sat on either side of my head. 

‘Hold still,’ she said as I fidgeted from one foot to the next and she tugged at my head to keep it in place. Her hands were firm and deliberate. She only hurt when she encountered a snag of tangles, which happened often enough but less often once she had wrangled my hair into braids. I slept in them at night so that in the morning when my sister unravelled them to begin again, the only tangles were in the superficial stray hairs that fell out of place by day.

This could be a metaphor for my life in those days, a metaphor for my life now, only I do not know how to use it beyond the thought of life as unruly, and unpredictable. And even though in my head I’m steeped in Murakami’s notions of fate, the way all seemingly random events come together to create an order that makes some sense. In my life the patterns which become evident when I step back and cast an eye over past decades, once upon a time seemed as random as the weather. 

My admiration for Murakami pales by comparison to Janet Frame’ s writing. A woman who speaks to my childhood like no other. 

One of my literary supervisors once complained that although the character of Mrs Withers in Janet Frame’s Owls do Cry was said to be based on Frame’s mother, her actual mother was nowhere as slovenly as the book suggests. 

Does this matter? 

Frame’s story is of a mother, like her own, a woman of elegant words, and strangled hopes who tries to survive against the odds. Who fears her husband and is terrified of things going wrong. As they do. She cannot wrangle her children into shape any more than my sister could. My sister pulling my plaits into order only to have their strands fall loose. A thick strand falling across my eyes in class, and my teacher, who could not abide dirty children, whose presence offended her eyes, scowled. 

We were a blight on the landscape like the people in quarantine facilities and infectious diseases hospitals who must be kept separate from the rest of us for fear of contagion. 

‘The writer of history is a walking anachronism, a displaced person using today’s techniques to try to know things about yesterday that yesterday didn’t know itself,’ Hilary Mantel.

To scrape at my memories is to pick them off a wall of experience where they sit carefully unexamined and then I throw them up to the light. Almost immediately they lose their centredness, cut off from the rest, from their context, from the minutiae of a life lived long ago and subject to the governing criteria of my younger self. 

Was this aspect of me an extension of the me who exists today? Or a different entity, one I can never hope to resurrect, so different are we each from the other, like strangers at a party meeting for the first time.

In the red brick chapel over the way from the ambulacrum which we entered on one side, through a dark cloak room and into the bright mosaic scattered corridor of light wood panelling with a separate entrance to the Victorian style house where the nuns hid, you entered the mystery of this place of worship. A chapel so small, on full school occasions there was standing room only. The nuns took up the three back rows, the students filled the front. 

During free times on weekends when I was a boarder and lived each day at the convent, I slipped inside this chapel and sat with my green A4 notebook in the back pews where the nuns usually sat. To write. 

At fifteen years of age, I saw this writing as a way of talking to myself. Or in high minded moments when I was on the cusp of religious disbelief, I considered it a way of talking to Jesus, only he had let me down so thoroughly in recent years after I put the miraculous Lourdes water from my rosary beads into my father’s teacup one morning and imagined it would stop him drinking. It did not. 

Such a pervasive desire in those days that my father might stop drinking alcohol and behave like other fathers, and that I might go home to a different house where people did not need to tip toe around the sleeping monster in the lounge room, who like the cranky bear in so many childhood stories might erupt at any moment and give voice to his rage. 

In my green notebook in the silence of the chapel my father’s rage slid into the walls of my home and shook. Close to the white plaster of that sacred house, I was safe to put words on the page.

I did not know about writing then. I did not know that to describe a feeling, a sensation I needed to flit into an image, a place, to create a mood and describe in detail so my reader might then share with me, the depth of my sorrow. 

Only then I used words that trivialised the experience by telling my unknown readers that I was sad, or that I was scared or that I was in love with my favourite nun. Such feelings were against the natural order of things. No one should ever read my journal, for fear of ridicule. 

Years later in one of my many moves, into the house in which I now live, I found my diary gone. Lost somewhere, somehow. And I have mourned for it ever since. To read first-hand the meanderings of that tortured adolescent mind, to re-meet my younger self, might give me the greatest pleasure even as it might cause me to cringe.

When you looked to the front of the chapel, there was a round rail that separated the altar from the brown wood pews filling the room like so many sardines. The altar was open and airy and culminated in marble steps that led to the place where they housed the tabernacle. All in gold, the tiny door, boasted a keyhole only the priest could use. And in the tabernacle the priest housed the left-over hosts from Communion each day. This white farex-tasting round wafer stuck to the roof of your mouth once you pulled in your tongue after the priest had placed the host square in the centre. 

The only time it was okay to let your tongue be seen – even on visits to the dreaded dentist when you had to hide your tongue somewhere in the back of your mouth so the dentist could get at your teeth without distraction – was at communion. 

In those days I did not know about the women somewhere in America who cut out their tongues in protest at being raped. A silent protest that spoke to the atrocity of being violated in body such they refused to speak ever again. 

‘Hold your tongue,’ the nuns said, if a girl was insolent and spoke out of turn. 

Hou je mond, my father said to my mother. Shut up. Shut your mouth. Be silent. 

These words come back to me and rattle round in the corners of my mind whenever I try to speak at psychoanalytic conferences or in front of certain colleagues. As if the prohibitions of my childhood are loudest in those spaces that have somehow become sacred.

The analytic world has long held that awe for me. A place where mysteries are revealed. A place of pomp and serious intent. And when I find myself in the company of analytic colleagues, something of the nun’s austerity slips inside my mind, like a cloak I must hide behind.

If I do not, if I reveal too many of my thoughts, then I will be ostracised for speaking out of turn. For my wagging tongue. For my inappropriate behaviour. For upsetting the gentle quiet reflective space that is meant to be an analytic encounter between colleagues where we sit together in earnest thought and reflect to one another on matters of great seriousness. Where we do not let slip anything to do with our feelings.

Feelings belong elsewhere, in the people with whom we work. Not in us, not in each other’s company. Not when we grapple with the profound thinking of our forebears. Those who laid out their maps of the mind. Freud and Klein, Lacan and Winnicott, all the sacred men of the past, and even the occasional woman, but mostly eminent white men who knew their theory, their history, their stuff, and would not be sidelined by the rambling rantings of a woman with a tongue she could not keep still.

I thought once it was easy to stay silent. To hide my uncertainty and questions behind a shell-like face that hid all trace of concern, but it was never like that underneath. Like belonging to a club where the rules make no sense and are therefore hard to follow. To create that world and experience is to exaggerate with words, an idea which harks back to Hilary Mantel’s thoughts about the historian as an anachronism. 

A young woman in her prime, full of wonder and doubt, I did not know how to let it show without the sensation of being all wrong. And this reinforced by the stern eyes of my analytic ancestors, of the teachers in my analytic training who stay with me still in the back of my mind. Their deep eyes shrouded in thoughtfulness and a priest like reverence that brings us closer to the god who was Freud whom I could never be, loose tongued and sloppy child that I was.

I see my younger self back then trying to emulate these stern figures from my past and cringe at my lack of warmth. The way my gushiness snapped shut under the weight of professionalism. The blank screen, the place onto which all others might project their own fantasies and the pleasure of being able to sit back and watch someone else spill their guts over me. I could step back unaffected only curious about them.

We may not see it like this now. Now when we become participants in this process and are aware of how affected we become in this analytic dance, but when I was a fifteen year old school girl and another fifteen years later, a young woman in search of analytic understanding, I only saw a need to hide and to hold my tongue. 

On the radio today I heard about the research of one Wendell Johnson who hypothesised that children who stuttered might stop stuttering if they were told often enough their speech was fine. To complete this experiment, he selected 20 children from a local orphanage, divided them into two groups, half of whom stuttered, the other half not. Then he subjected half that compliment via a researcher, one 22-year-old Mary Tudor to tell one group including five stutterers and five non stutterers their speech was fine. 

For the other group, half of whom also stuttered and half who did not, that they had a problem speaking and should only speak when they were sure they had their words correct. Those in the group told their speech was all wrong suffered, especially the non-stutterers. 

The person who investigated this ‘Monster’ research talked of how this research took place in 1937, when psychoanalysts were arguing that stuttering was the result of neurosis. They argued people who stuttered suffered from repressed homosexual desire manifested in their anal muscle stuttering in unison, or some such bunkum.

It horrifies me to learn that psychoanalytic ideas could be so misused in the service of labelling people whose affliction might well have some other source beyond so called neurosis.