Idiotic times

Last weekend we had another family reunion, though this time only six of us managed to meet in the Quality Inn Motel on High Street in Echuca.

Of the four who stayed away – three brothers had elected not to come from the onset – two offered excuses, one said nothing and the fourth, one of my three sisters, was forced to stay away by the floods. She could have managed the trip to Echuca, she emailed, but she might not have managed to get out again.

It rained all the way from Melbourne to Echuca and we stopped for lunch at Heathcote in a place called the Gaggling Geese. It seemed an apt description, for indeed late at night as the six of us gathered together in one of our motel rooms with at least three extra spouses, we gaggled like geese, though there was less of the hostility of our last reunion to which every sibling came.

This time the angriest folk had stayed away, and yet my oldest brother and I debated the ‘facts’ of history and whether or not we had any right to speculate on what might have happened to our grandparents in prison all those years ago, on the grounds that we still did not know the ‘truth’.

We did not possess a transcript of court details and so far none of us, my brother included, have managed to secure the records.

Earlier when I told my supervisor at the university about the facts Barbara van Balen had unearthed in Haarlem, that both my grandparents had been imprisoned in 1941 for a period of time, my grandmother for embezzlement, and my grandfather on charges of ontucht, she said,
‘Sounds like they could have been running a brothel.’

I had not put the two events together in my mind. Embezzlement, I understand is theft of some sort that involves deception, while ontucht, which can be defined as vice, prostitution, lewdness suggests maybe even more than incest. But I have no evidence.

How could I find out? I spoke to my mother. ‘Were Dad’s parents running a brothel?’ I asked.
‘No. No. I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘Other people would have known about it. He was in the government. He had a good job. I think maybe he got coupons. They could have played with that, got coupons under false pretences, to get more food.’ She sounded impatient.

‘It was idiotic times, not normal at all. It was not like it used to be in Holland at that time. The Germans were there, not the Dutch government. All the good judges had retired. The whole country stopped. Professors at universities stopped. Schools stopped. My own father did not have a job. Colleges were closed.

‘No. No. It could not have been that. It probably had to do with coupons. There were people willing to do work. The NSBs, we called them, Nationalist Socialists. They were with the German government, Dutch people sympathetic to the Nazis. They did the jobs, they were a small group but they were powerful and they spied on us.

‘I remember sitting next to a woman on the tram,’ my mother continued. ‘It must have been the second year of the war. We still had trams. The woman said to me,
“Be careful of what you say. There’s an NSB agent sitting on the tram.”

‘In that first year of the war things weren’t so bad. We still had coupons. But by the third year of the war we had nothing.

‘It must have been coupons, because they had more food than others. That’s what you noticed.

‘Where I lived on the second floor above a printing shop, I noticed the woman who lived below. Her husband was a seaman but I never saw him during the war. Later I understood they were NSB, because she got food too.

‘In those last years the Germans had special kitchens and those people who helped them got food. After the war, the woman downstairs, her husband was put in gaol.
You had to be so careful in those years.’ My mother paused.

I told her then about my trip in 2006 through Haarlem on a bicycle with my new German friend, Heidi.
‘I didn’t know you had a German friend.’
‘I met her at the conference,’ I explained. She lives in Amsterdam and we took the train together from Frankfurt to Amsterdam.’

‘When you’re older you think more about the past,’ my mother said. ‘We called the prison the Parapluie. Of those things I don’t think. I don’t dwell on them but on what was nice. Otherwise you get sad and morbid, if you live alone. So I think only over the happy times. I think about my Haarlem cousins, what happened to them, how they married.

‘With your dad’s family I tried to be good to them and meet them before we married. But they were strange. We let them know when your first brother was born. We didn’t get an answer. They didn’t come to see us. They were very strange and after that I thought if that’s how they feel, I’m not interested.

‘So then I stopped trying to visit. Before then I always said to your father, they are your parents, we have to try. But then I realised they are not much chop.

‘After what they did with our wedding. [August 1942] His father would have performed our wedding, but he didn’t even come. We waited an hour and they just let us sit. We didn’t care about the legal part because that was not what we considered our wedding. But we couldn’t get our coupons till after the legal wedding, then we could get blankets and stuff. So after the legal wedding we could buy the things we needed and then six weeks later we were properly married. That was in 1942.

‘I was lucky to get material for my wedding dress because I knew a man who managed a VD, a big store nearly as big as Myer. I asked him could he get some white silk or satin or whatever,
“Can you get me six metres?” and he got me six metres and more of an orangey taffeta which I didn’t like. I’d have preferred peach, a paler colour but it was all we could get. The manager gave it to me and said, “This is the last, nothing comes any more”.

Then later when she got married, my cousin asked to borrow my wedding dress and the bridesmaids’ dresses. And I gave them to her.

‘It was a very hard time. On the other hand everyone suffered. We still gave parties and insisted that everyone dress up. Fellows wore their … we call them smoking, their dinner suits, because you couldn’t go out after eight o’clock till next morning at six. So we had to make the most of it. For three years we had nothing, you had to make it yourself.’

Years later at this our most recent family reunion my brother made a point: ‘Ontucht’ he said, ‘could also mean adultery.’

I did not have the presence of mind to suggest to him that they do not put you into prison for adultery, at least not as far as I know, not in the western world.

My brother also suggested that my grandfather, as the person in charge of births, deaths and marriages in Haarlem held a significant role. He could have helped people to establish their identity, and thereby rule out the possibility of Jewish ancestry, even if they had paid for it, as I imagine some might have done in order to stay safe from the Nazis.

Such a role made my grandfather powerful and it is a power he may have abused.

But this, too, is speculation, much as my mother speculated when I asked her about my grandparents’ imprisonment.

Why I write autobiography.

I read a short piece in the New Yorker review of books yesterday in which Janet Malcolm talks about the difficulties of writing her own autobiography. How hard it is to keep out the excess detail that would most likely be of interest to the auto biographer only.

It is easier for a journalist or biographer, she writes. The distance and objectivity required enables the writer to pick out the salient pieces, the things in the life story that will keep the reader interested, and will keep the story rolling along.

When you write your own story you are far more likely to get stuck in the mire of details from your life, details that become tedious and irrelevant to your reader, however riveting they might seem to you.

The difficulties of writing autobiography multiply.

To begin with there is the business of being bound to ‘write the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. An impossible task, given there is no such thing as absolute truth, only multiple variations of it, and multiple perspectives.

The literature abounds these days with the discounted evidence of people who claimed they were telling the truth of their stories, when the facts of history disproved their claims. They may have written a good story but they betrayed their readership by claiming it to be true, when it was not.

Beyond writing the truth, autobiographers are also obliged to focus on their own lives. And given that it is impossible to write about yourself without including details of other people’s lives, then autobiographers must consider disguising those others to such an extent that they cannot be identified. To disguise your fellow travelers in life is to begin to write fiction.

I once wanted to write about my siblings from the perspective of the lives of the saints after whom they were each named. To write in this way would demand that I use their first names. I could not therefore write about them, though I was safe enough to write about my own patron saint, Elisabeth of Hungary. I would tell you the story here, but I digress.

So now we arrive at the first catch twenty two: write the truth but keep bits of it hidden, particularly the identities of those who wish to remain concealed. To establish the identities of those who might wish to remain concealed is to alert them to the possibility that you might write about them. This opens up Pandora’s Box.

If you do a run around among your siblings, parents, friends and close others about how they might feel were details of your memories of your life together included, you are likely to fall into thorny bushes. And, as Drusilla Modjeska once wrote to me, there are those whom you expect to object who will not, and those whom you imagine to be in support, who will be furious. You cannot predict.

I once wrote a series of letters to my nine siblings suggesting that we cooperate in the writing of a book. We could each write a chapter on what it was like growing up in our ‘troubled’ family. The book never eventuated. We could not cooperate. Besides, I am a middle child, sixth in line. How could the editorial role fall to me, someone in the lower echelons of family chronology, and a girl to boot? How could I be permitted to take on such a task? How could I be deemed the arbiter of what gets included?

The advantage for a woman of my generation, who is more likely to have changed her name in marriage, is that the details of her family name are obscured and therefore less likely to become an issue in the disclosure stakes.

Most teachers of writing will tell you just to get on and write it first, worry about how you publish later.

The joys and dangers of blogging are that less of this process needs to take place. It is rather like going to a bakery where the bread is fresh out of the oven, rather than going to the supermarket where the bread has been standing around for hours going through the process of being sliced, bagged, labeled and transported to supermarket destinations near and far way. The latter bread tastes more predictable and bland but it is safer perhaps, albeit more doctored, than the stuff fresh out of the baker’s tray.

Which is another rule of successful autobiography: the rule of keeping it vital, which as Janet Malcolm points out, involves a degree of exclusion and a level of fictionalising that clashes with the first rule of ‘telling the truth’.

The next accusation to be leveled at the autobiographer involves that of narcissism. What makes you think your life is so interesting that anyone else would want to read about it? Who do you think you are?

You do not hear such arguments leveled against artists who paint their self-portraits regularly, who examine the intricacies of their form and with flourish. These self-portraits are rarely considered narcissistic, at least not as far as I have heard. Artists can include a life long chronology of their self-portraiture and no one bats an eyelid, but loves to see the progress. No such indulgence is offered to the unwary autobiographer who repeats herself, whose self image changes over time, and who is inconsistent in her self appraisals and perspectives of others.

It is one thing to write about the past, especially the far distant past, ten years ago and more. There is a certain sense of completion to events that happened then. We have had time to think about these experiences, to reflect on them and every time we do, they change a little.

Memory is like that. Every time we remember an event we reformulate it. We tweak it at the edges. We offer it more internal and logical sense than it might have had at the time.

As Timothy Garton Ash writes memory is like a re-write able CD, each new version replaces the last. And we all know that memory is unreliable and prone to distortion.

When we write about the present the task is even harder. Our memory for recent events is likely to be better. We can embellish the details more effectively. We can remember more precisely the exact curve in the teacup and the way her hair curls on top, but the experience is all too close. It feels raw. It has little of that sense of completeness that comes out of our continual revisions – both conscious and unconscious – and therefore it is prone to exaggeration and distortion.

Besides the people who participated in the recent events described are far more likely to be around at the same time and their memories of the event are also fresher. They might have a different view and disagree with yours, or they might not yet be ready to reflect on the experience.

So it was for me when I wrote about my daughter’s wedding too soon after the event and posted it on my blog. She had not realised that I had felt so hassled on the morning of the day. Why hadn’t I talked to her about it? she asked. Why had I chosen to write about it on my blog? Why had I included details that might identify her?

My blog is too public. I can be too readily identified. I should conceal my identity and not let anyone else in the blogosphere know who I am in real life.

‘The people who blog are not all who they say they are,’ another daughter tells me. ‘You can’t talk about those people in blogdom as real, because there is every chance they are not.’

I am torn. What would it be like, I wonder, to write under a veil of anonymity? To write under a pseudonym? To write as though my name were not my name. To write as though I were someone else.

I have not yet been able to do this effectively. I have tried to write fiction. I have tried to write about events that come from the well of my imagination, but they are always events that have been part of my experience. I might give over the events to various made up characters, but they too come from my experience.

I cannot write into the complete unknown, but I admire those whose imaginations are so robust that they can.

I am stuck with the so called ‘reality’ of my world, its past and its present. I feel handicapped by this and yet I cannot write about any other world or place and time. Only the world I know. When I imagine other worlds, invariably I remember them through the lens of my own experience.

I do not write the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, only variations on it. I write from my experience but the events I describe are based on memories of times gone by, even if they only happened yesterday, and in so doing I embellish these events, I reconstruct them.

I do not lie, but it is not the absolute truth and my perspective can vary depending on from which part of me I write. For I am as multiple in my perspectives as are those other participants in the same events.

Now I will tell you why I refuse to travel incognito, even on this blog where my adult children warn me I should be more careful. I should conceal my identity; I should hide the ‘truth’ of myself.

I grew up in a family in which we were told to ‘do as if nothing is wrong’; ‘keep it to yourselves’; ‘don’t let the neighbours know’; ‘hide’.

I write to escape these injunctions.

I write to reorder and thereby to create some illusion of control, to redress wrongs, to turn my helplessness into strength, to expose the wrong doers in my life, including my own wrong doings and to offer another perspective, one that can be reworked again and again into another version of the same events by other writers and participants to come.

Through my writing I can both hide and reveal.