Black and white and in between

When I was a child the nuns taught us to look at the way our boyfriends treated their mothers and sisters to get some insight into how they’d most likely treat us in years to come. 

The nuns were warning us away from abusive men, or so I reasoned at the time, though I knew from the things my mother had told me about how lovely my father was in the beginning, you can’t always tell first up. 

As I was ripping through the housework yesterday, I plugged in earphones and listened again to the beginning of Jess Hill’s book, See what you made me do

It’s sobering stuff, the idea that home is the most dangerous place for a woman; that one woman a week is murdered in Australia by an intimate partner and that one woman in four suffers the effects of family abuse, however it’s rendered. 

It took till the mid-sixties and Vatican Two for the nuns to begin to escape the bonds of their clothing, those heavy habits, all black in winter and white in summer, folds of fabric that they looked after themselves, sewed and mended as necessary. 

In my childhood memory, those habits never looked shoddy; no signs of food spills, even on the white, but they must have been the devil’s own to clean. So much fabric and I doubt they had multiple changes. 

The invisible nature of the nuns’ clothing and those unseen bodies underneath fascinated me. Along with the fact that the nuns’ only encounters with men came in the form of priests and the fathers of the school children they taught. 

But still they could warn us away.

The nuns presumably grew up in families with fathers and mothers and sisters. Perhaps they gleaned their knowledge of abusive men from there. 

From my understanding of the nun’s teachings, there seemed to be two types of men, black and white like their habits, the good sainted ones like Jesus and his father Joseph; like the apostles Peter, Paul and the rest; the Archangel Michael and his cohort, and some of the fathers of the children they taught and maybe some of the priests. And the rest. 

The nuns deferred to the priests, but even as a child I did not get the sense they adored them, not the suburban ones in the parishes, and not the way they loved the Pope or the Archbishop of Melbourne, in those days Daniel Mannix.

Where did the nuns get their knowledge of abusive men and was the thought of being ill-treated something that put them off marrying?

The second type of men, the ones whose souls were blackened through cruelty and neglect, these were the ones to avoid. These were the ones who might treat you like you were a servant; there only to care for them, their bodies and their house. 

These were the ones who might give you a crushed rib or blackened eye if you so much as objected to the way they refused to hand out enough money for housekeeping. These were the men who kept you down. 

Stay away from them, the nuns warned.

But how to do that when the first appeal came in the form of those puppy eyes that looked at you adoringly, at least when you first encountered your boyfriend and filled you with a maternal longing to look after this small boy/man and care for him with all your heart. 

It was only later as the months and years into marriage and many children later turned you into an abject dish cloth that you began to realise, you’d made a bad bargain. 

By then it was too late, as it was for my mother. She was trapped.

When I hit my early twenties well before I’d subjected myself to marriage, studying social work at the university, I began to read feminist texts and unfairly found myself railing against the passivity of my mother for staying with my father for all those years.

She was given plenty of opportunities to leave I reasoned then, but always she was drawn back.

In my final years at school, during one of those separations which my older brothers had organised when the youngest of my family lived with our mother alone in a run-down house near the beach at Parkdale, I never feared to go home at night. 

I never held my breath as the weekend approached about what might happen. 

How drunk he might get. How dangerous he might become. Which of us he might hit or hit upon. 

I never feared about how I might conduct myself. 

All I needed to do was work hard at school and get a good enough result to get me into the University of Melbourne and a social work degree. 

During the week of swat vac, cramming Latin declensions into my brain one day, French vocabulary the next, rote learning quotes from books like Long Days Journey into Night and The Great Gatsby, men’s books about the horrible lot of women among other things, life’s great tragedies, my mother told me that she had decided to go back to our father by Christmas. 

She would relinquish the rental on this house and we younger kids could return with her if we could not find a place of our own. There was no ‘we’. I was just eighteen and had no idea how to live other than in the care of my mother. 

The year before two brothers ahead of me by two years, had moved out, one to college in Canberra at the university and the other into a bed sit which he managed through his first job in something like insurance. 

I could not do this, I believed, and so I returned home for my first year of university. 

My mother argued, and not for the first time, that a miracle had happened and that my father had agreed once more to give up drinking. That he would never touch the bottle again.

Jess Hill writes that on average it takes seven attempts for a woman to leave her abusive partner successfully, that is for good, unless he kills her first. 

My sister and I stayed behind in the Parkdale house one final night alone before the removalists came to take the last of our possessions back home to Cheltenham. I sat at the kitchen table and listened to the radio; aware this might be the last time for a long time when I could feel the freedom of life away from my father. 

I listened to Frank Sinatra – patriarch, though I didn’t know it then – sing his signature My Way and decided I too could live my life my way. 

I wrote a letter to my twenty-one-year-old self that night. Time seemed eternal, as if a year or more might last forever, and it was hard to imagine myself in three years’ time. To imagine myself as a twenty-one-year-old adult. 

Eighteen then was not the same as eighteen now. Eighteen then marked a transition from school to another life but not until we were twenty-one, were we honoured as adults. So, my late adolescent self wrote to my adult self what I read now as the corniest of letters. All about being good and diligent and kind and religious. 

I did not know then how much I would change under the influence of those first months at university. How the people I met and the experiences of being free from the burden of Catholicism, even still living with my father, allowed me to open my eyes wider than ever before.

That is, once I moved away from the black and white nature of good and bad, and learned to ‘love hatingly’ and ‘hate lovingly’ as the analyst Thomas Ogden suggests in order to lead meaningful lives. 

3 thoughts on “Black and white and in between”

  1. A really thoughtful and true essay by a sincere writer. I do hope you are well and keeping your distance when going to the supermarket. Philip.

  2. Growing up male (and having no other choice in the matter which always bugged me because I never particularly enjoyed being male) I, of course, have a different take on masculinity than you. I grew up being herded in a particular direction and expected to embrace my God-given destiny. The older I got, and the more insightful, the less I found I wanted to be like the men around me. Yes, naturally, there were things about being male I enjoyed—mainly the physical strength—but we were mostly lumbering brutes at heart; there was little graceful about us or gentle. I like the term “gentleman” and like to think of myself as a gentle man. I have bullied but only my little brother and even then only when I was too wee to appreciate what I was doing: I simply copied what I saw Dad doing. Later on I witnessed how the men around me acted and expected me to. They called it “giving women their place” but it didn’t take me too long to realise that was code for “keeping women in their place.” So what if Eve was to blame for the fall of Man. Why should her daughters and granddaughters and great-granddaughters-to-the-umpteenth-generation be punished for her sin? Never sat well with me that.

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