Throwing stones

I think I may have posted something to the wrong group. A mistake that will cause me great angst and now I feel sick in the pit of my stomach for my carelessness and I feel such shame and a need to skulk off and hide.

 It’s a familiar feeling. 

You’ve opened your mouth in the wrong place and people will be upset with you and they’ll tell you off and humiliate you and reckon that you’re the worst of the worst. 

Like farting in church as an old friend used to say. But his idea of farting in church was always as an act of defiance and yet he was one of the most bigoted people I remember, especially in relation to homosexuality.

I fear I may have sent an email about bigotry towards homosexuals to the wrong email group because I was careless when I sent the email out and did not check that there are two groups in my mailbox at present, one for whom this is relevant and the other one for whom it’s not.

And now I’m beginning to calm down because I may not have sent it to the wrong group after all.

So, my panic might well be unwarranted.

There’s a scene in the movie Notes on a Scandal where the central character played by Cate Blanchett, a young woman who after a sexual relationship with one of her young students is taken into custody and a crowd of people gather around her and yell at her for her obscenity. 

The look on her face, the angst in her eyes goes somewhere close to describing how I felt after I presented a paper on incest, among other things, to my colleagues and found some of them were enraged.

The same feeling in the pit of my stomach. 

‘Let they who are without sin, cast the first stone,’ but people are quick to cast stones, so fast to let it be known that the one who has transgressed is contemptible. 

It’s the worst feeling in the world and whenever it surges in me, I crumble. Blood thins, stomach drops, all those bodily changes that signify there’s adrenalin coursing through and I’m ready to flee. 

Not fight. Mostly I flee. I hide. I go underground until I can get my mind around the horror of what I’ve done. What badness I’ve brought on.

Ever since I was little and can remember drawing attention to myself by saying something I should not say, doing something I should not do, stealing lollies from the local milk bar when the man who served at the counter turned his back; looking at my father’s art books with their images of naked women and thick penises hidden under fig leaves but still visible in the testicles that curled underneath. The excitement I felt whenever I looked at the naked breasts of women on the front cover of The Truth newspaper, a tabloid my father brought home from work for reasons I never understood given he was an educated man, and someone told me The Truthwas just filth. The excitement I felt when I hid myself in the back of the house in the toilet at the top of the stairs near the laundry, the outside toilet in a house that already boasted an indoors toilet.

All these sins.

In this toilet I could read The Readers Digests my mother brought home from the old people’s home down the road, where she worked. And the Time magazines my father bought from the newsagency, a respectable international magazine that he folded over his Truth.

I went straight to the last two pages of Timewhere they reviewed films or other artistic ventures. 

The pieces on films I had not heard of and was unlikely ever to see, held the rudiments of stories, often salacious, stories of sexual innuendo, of men and women behaving badly, and I relished the frisson of excitement up and down my spine whenever anything sexual was mentioned even if I didn’t understand it. 

I was hunting for something.

In everything I read in those days I was hunting for more information about what happened between grown-ups behind closed doors.

I wanted to understand something that to me then seemed incomprehensible. This thing that men did with their penises and the way women responded. 

In my fourteenth year during the midday movie, I watched a man holding a woman in his arms, her back to the camera. The woman was wearing an evening gown, its back scooped down to the waist so the entire arc of her back was visible and the man who held her rubbed his hands up and down all over as she nestled in close to kiss. 

What if such a man were to stroke my back? 

Never. His hands would slide over the lumpy skin of a pimply adolescent back and he’d be repulsed. 

The actor of the low-cut dress had skin as smooth as the satin of her dress. Flawless. My skin was pockmarked and pitted. No man would ever want to comfort me in this way. 

And so began my foray into feeling bad inside both bodily for its imperfections and in my mind for other transgressions.  And the bad feelings stay. 

So much drama over the conviction of George Pell, the Cardinal who was found guilty of sexually abusing two men when they were altar boys and he the Archbishop of Melbourne.

Picture of disgraced Cardinal George Pell.
By Kerry Myers. CC BY 2.0.

The event has stirred up such a welter of feeling in our community, and throughout the world. Such rage at this man, this icon of the Catholic church this beacon of propriety now fallen from on high into the worst pit a person can imagine, inside with other paedophiles.

I watched a documentary last night wherein Louis Theroux visited an American penitentiary for convicted paedophiles who’d served their term but who would most likely never be able to go back into society because they’re still considered a threat. A place for paedophiles.

A disturbing film, not simply the witnessing of the troubled men who had sexually abused small children but also the treatment approach, which left me cold.

Among other things, they used a device, a type of lie detector to which the men attached their penis via a small elastic loop which was connected to the machine. The whole procedure was measured and filmed.

To determine his progress in treatment, each man sat alone and pulled the loop onto his penis then sat, with penis attached, under a desk onto which they rested both hands. Their hands needed to be visible because men could cheat at this test simply by attacking the loop to a finger.

Then they were required to watch a series of images, some ordinary, some sexually suggestive, some subtle, some not so, some with children, some without. And the degree to which their penis swelled in size was used as a measure of whether or not they had overcome their desires to interfere sexually with children.

It seems such a basic and primitive measure as if the men are merely a function of their brain and penis.

The whole time I watched I wanted to cry. But could not.

These men, most of whom had been sexually abused themselves as children in one way or another, and who then found themselves unable to resist the temptation to perform sexual acts on children.

They emerge out of our society. They are of our society and yet when we hear of them, we want nothing more than to expel them forevermore.

As if we can be rid of paedophilia forever, if only we can be rid of such monsters.

But are they monsters or do they represent something gone wrong in our society?

This is not for one minute to condone any of this behaviour.

But to lock them away forevermore is harsh punishment indeed.

Which brings me back to the beginning, the harsh punishments we mete out to those who’ve done wrong.

How tempting it is to throw stones and at the same time duck for cover.

For the question always follows, which one of us is without sin?

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.