You do not have to be good, but you must not murder

I have these first two lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese, on my brain.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert,


I repeat the first line in my head, like a mantra.

‘You do not have to be good.’

The notion that I must be good is one I struggle to overcome.

It’s funny how when a celebrated person dies, people everywhere in the world of social media go out of their way to send condolences or to express their sorrow.

Mary Oliver was 83 years old. She’d had a reasonable innings as far as longevity is concerned and she herself talked of a level of acceptance of death that was exemplary.

But we, the living left behind, must incorporate the news of her death along with the deaths of all those other celebrities, the ones who lived lives beyond our reach except through the media and screen.

The ones who seem timeless. Their names pop up regularly, in books or film, in the news or we follow them hot with desire to know more, and imbue them with a timeless quality as if they are superstars who will never die.

And then they’re dead.

Jacqueline Rose wrote an essay on celebrities. She talked of how we adulate them and enjoy seeing our stars elevated, idealised.

But if they so much as make a mistake – as most do. They’re only human after all – somehow, we get pleasure from watching them fall.

Something to do with the degree to which their shame mitigates our shame.

Mary Oliver’s words might also speak to those celebrated people and others in positions of authority to let them know, that they too, do not have to be good.

At first, I thought Mary Oliver’s words were directed specifically towards women but then I told my husband about her death, this poem in particular, and he resonated to the notion as well.

 He too suffers from what he calls an inside ‘judge’, one who is forever telling him that whatever he does it’s not good enough.

This inner critic most of us recognise in one way or another.

How does the man who murdered the twenty-one-year-old student visitor from Israel in Bundoora last week feel?

What does his inner critic say?

Thoughts about this beautiful young woman dead at twenty one for no reason other than she got off a tram in Bundoora and he was there.

As far as we know he was a stranger to her. He chose her.

On Facebook, I follow Destroy the Joint’s listing of all the women in Australia who die at the hands of men, mainly at the hands of men who knew them, mainly at the hands of their partners, ex or current.

More than one woman murdered each week in Australia.

No wonder we women believe we have to be good, to keep ourselves safe. If not a partner then a stranger could pick upon us, more likely though only if we’re young and beautiful and fit some stereotype of a woman ‘who’s asking for it.’

Was the man who killed her, one of those involuntary celibates, the men who rail against the fact that no woman has chosen them for sex. These men hate all women who have deprived them of what they see as their God-given right, to have sex with a woman of their choosing.

That she should choose not to share her body with such a man inflames him more.

Such men are troubled, troubled in their deep and wounded narcissism which tells them they have the right to take the life of another because she has not given them what they want.

No wonder Mary Oliver urges us to get past this notion that we do not have to be good, even when there is such pressure on us as women to be so, in order to satisfy the cravings of men who might otherwise kill us.

If this is an extreme position, I intend it to be so. I intend to make the point that no one has the right to take another person’s life from them just because they’re offended, no matter how deeply, or in their minds how justifiably.

I feel such a depth of sorrow for this young woman from Israel and for her family.

She was on the phone to her sister in Israel just off the tram when the man struck and although I don’t yet know the full details, I understand it was a brutal attack.

What madness assailed this young man. It seems the police have found DNA traces on the clothes of the young man they’re questioning as I write. And if indeed he is charged and after due process found guilty, what madness assailed this young man to the point he saw fit to destroy a young woman’s life.

This idea that women must subjugate themselves to the desires of men is deeply embedded in the patriarchal, and before I continue on this rant any further, I want to write another take on how much we do not have to be good.

It comes in the form of Anthony Browne’s Piggybook. A children’s story.

 Mr Pigott lives in a nice house along with his two sons Simon and Patrick and his wife.

In this nice house, Mrs Pigott does everything. She cooks and cleans. She washes dishes and makes beds. The two boys and their father call to her to hurry up with their meals before and after they go out to their very important job, in the case of Mr Pigott, and in the case of the boys, their very important school. While Mrs Pigott, after she has made bed, washed dishes and prepared food, is the last to leave for her work.

One day when the boys come home from school, they find Mrs Pigott has gone, leaving only  a blunt message:

‘You are pigs.’

 Over the next several pages of this beautifully illustrated book, we watch father and sons morph into pigs who struggle to cook for themselves. The meals they cook taste awful, so they order take away.

They do not clean after themselves, or wash clothes or change the beds and in the end the place is turned into a pig sty. They have no food left and must scrabble round the floor for scraps.

Finally, Mrs Pigott strides through the front door, this time a towering woman who now has the respect of her husband and sons. They begin to help with the dishes, make the beds, clean and keep house while Mrs Pigott goes outside to fix the car.

And so ends the moral of this story, which challenges gender stereotypes and the unfairness of the distribution of labour, based on one’s assigned sex, but also simply based on the notion that one only has to be good, while others can do as they please until the one who has been so good, such a martyr to the family, says ‘no more’ and walks out on the job.

Then the rest are left to recognise their needs and struggle with their vulnerabilities.

In order for change to take place they must agree to share the load instead of expecting to stay forever more like a baby in her mother’s care.

I suspect in the mind of the young man who murdered, he was like a tyrannising enraged infant. Only trouble is, he was not an infant.

Infants are helpless and can be overcome. They cannot murder.

Grown adults of any shape size or description, when gripped in rage, out of their sense of injustice or of entitlement or of whatever else drove this man to murder, are not so easily stopped, not when their victim is taken by surprise and is physically weaker.

I weep for this young woman. I weep for all of us that we live in a world where this type of cruelty continues, still unchecked, because we have not yet tackled the inequalities of our society.

Notice Box

My father turned one hundred and one in February this year.

For the past thirty-five of these last one hundred and one years he has been dead. Dead the way I wanted him for the best part of my childhood.

Eventually I gave up on wanting him dead because I stopped living in the same house and wasn’t daily exposed to his unquenchable need for recognition.

For my father, recognition took the form of sex.  Or put more succinctly, recognition involved the presence of another person’s body, preferably a woman’s, into whom he could release all his pent-up energies and frustrations.

Unleash his desire.

When I first encountered my own sexual desire as a child, it came to me in the rush of pleasure I found in my father’s art books, the naked bodies draped over couches.

Not until I heard the comedian, Hannah Gadsby, question the nature of art and the way in which the women in art books are displayed as helplessly half dressed and flayed over couches, did it occur to me that I have viewed sexuality through the male gaze.

I have been attracted to the desire for another through this lens where women are the recipients and men the givers.

More recently I’ve been pondering this phenomenon called the incel movement, a subculture of predominantly young men who find themselves unable to draw the attention or attraction of a woman and thereby feel increasingly rejected.

These men isolate themselves and spend their days resenting these woman, who fit the stereotype of blonde, blue eyed and beautiful, the ‘Stacys’ as the incels call them.  They believe these women are attracted only only to – again stereotyped – virile hunks, hyper masculine men, the ‘Chads’, as they call them.

These disaffected have men banded together through the online world to form a group of involuntary celibates – hence the name ‘incel’ – involuntary because, unlike priests in the Catholic Church or other people who practise celibacy by choice, these men believe that celibacy has been foisted upon them.

They feel rage towards those women whom have rejected them as well as towards the men whom they believe have taken the women from them.

This rage can reach murderous proportions and some of the incels have become crusaders, hell bent on eliminating these women who have caused them such pain.

No doubt it goes back to childhood deprivation of some sort. Parents who were unloving towards a child, or abusive. Or a child who for whatever reason was never able to come to terms with being denied love or not getting things his own way.

Such experience can breed a sense of entitlement, as if these men are entitled to the love of a woman.

I expect it doesn’t just apply to men, but given I’m reflecting on a binary here as dictated by these involuntarily celibates, I won’t try to expand on it more.

If sex is as primal as hunger and thirst as primal as the need for shelter and warmth, as primal as the need to make sense of our experience, then I suspect some of this entitlement is connected to our human need for recognition.

When I was a kid at school, the nuns took offence at those other kids in the class who demanded more attention. These kids were mostly boys, boys who could not sit still at their desks, boys who insisted on talking to one another even when they had been told to stay silent, boys who spilled their bottles of regulation milk at recess just for fun.

Mother Mary John called these boys ‘notice boxes’. In my mind’s eye I saw red postal boxes the type that still line our streets today. These red-letter boxes reminded me of guards on duty, their letter slit a mouth and all wore a crown on top painted in red with the letters HR below in honour of the queen.

Why Mother Mary John chose to call these boys notice boxes and their association to letterboxes puzzled me?

Mother Mary John saw it as a problem when any child sought attention, as if it signalled a defective personality this wish to be noticed.

And yet, isn’t that what we all want/need? Some sort of recognition, some sort of understanding?

And sex is one way of exchanging such recognition though it cannot come by order, any more than those boys who commanded so much attention from Mother Mary John need not have been punished because they did not yet understand the need for all of us to take it in turns to take centre stage.

Which brings me full circle, back to my father, a man who struggled to find his place on the human stage, wanting to take up all the space given the nature of his childhood, a mystery to me still, though I understand is as one dominated by paternal authority and abuse. My paternal grandfather was the chief archivist at the Dutch registry for births death and marriages in Haarlem and a man who put his own impulses and desires first at the expense of his wife and children. In later years he wound up in jail for his crimes but not before he had set in train a crescendo of destruction that found its way onto the next generation.