Helen Garner

Helen Garner #

Helen Garner is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer and journalist. The New Yorker recently led with the headline:

The Startling Candor of Helen Garner One of Australia’s most beloved writers, Garner—who has published novels, nonfiction, and three volumes of diaries—is finally catching on in the U.S.

A product of the 1960’s agitation for greater social freedoms, especially for women. Moving into many communal share houses with transitory partners resulted in a variety of partners and three failed marriages. Best viewed in her first novel Monkey Grip

While subject to jealousy and resentment, Helen has emerged with a level headed assessment of male female relationships and a generous understanding of men’s predicaments.

Helen was active in the abortion rights movement, Moratorium marches doing street theatre dressed up as Viet Cong, she described the sensation of discovering women’s liberation as an epiphany.

I felt as if I’d been underwater for my whole life. And now for the first time, I’d stuck my head out of the water and taken a breath … looking around and thinking: ‘Now I get it. Now I get why my life is such a mess and why I’ve been so unhappy and wrecked everything’.

Once I got the sort of basic gist of feminism – or women’s liberation as it was called then – I thought, ‘Oh, now I understand everything, and everything’s going to change, because all we have to do is just say to men:

“This is what’s the matter, and if we could just do this, and if you could just do that” …’

And I really thought that was going happen.

She now reflects, in the context of MeToo:

Some things might change, but there’s stuff about men and sex and women that are just not amenable to social control, and never will be.

On love #

First Stone #

The First Stone was about one, relatively minor, incident. It dealt with an Ormond College end-of-year dinner at the University of Melbourne in October 1991, after which two students claimed that the residential college master, Alan Gregory, had groped them.

One woman said he twice squeezed her breast during a slow dance, and the other that he invited her into his office, said he had “indecent thoughts” about her and grabbed her breasts.

The master said none of this happened.

Garner was jolted when she read a “desolate little item” in the Age about Gregory being up on an indecent assault charge in the magistrates’ court over the dance incident.

She put her reflexive reaction in a letter to Gregory that as a life-long feminist, it was

“heartbreaking” to see feminist ideals “distorted into this ghastly punitiveness … the most appallingly destructive, priggish and pitiless way of dealing with it”.

Why did the women go to the police? Why was the punishment of the master – who was eventually cleared by the courts but forced out of the university – so out of proportion to his crime? Garner frets away at those questions, telling of her own experiences of unwanted sexual attention and railing against “puritan feminists” consumed by rage and fear. The women’s supporters loathed her for it, and many still do.

Gay Alcorn of Guardian Australia writes:

Garner’s stance may be outdated. But her questions about sexual harassment aren’t. Its uncomfortable truths remain prescient.

Unjust is the word for the behaviour of men who use their position of power as a weapon in forcing women to endure their repeated sexual approaches, or who take revenge for a knockback by distorting a woman’s career or making her workplace intolerable or sacking her. Consider, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, guru Don Burke, actor Craig McLachlan, Roger Ailes, Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein …..

Unjust does not apply to a clumsy pass at a party by a man who’s had too much to drink. These days, it does, and mostly should, if that man is a leader in an organisation. The Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, Luke Foley and Ashley Raper …

But her point about proportion, about gradation of offence, rings true today.

The hardline view that every transgression reinforces rape culture and misogyny is a hindrance, not a help.

“The ability to discriminate must be maintained, otherwise, all we are doing is increasing the injustice of the world.”

First Stone on one level is innocent compared with the astonishing tumble of powerful and monstrous men in the United States and the nascent widening of the discussion beyond individuals to structures, to culture.

“After decades of silence, of open secrets in plain sight, women feel the power of looking out for each other, of being heard and believed”.

Yet an independent review of residential colleges at Australia’s “most dangerous university for women” has found student leaders stand accused of several sexual assault and sexual harassment offences. These student leaders are the same people victims are expected to turn to for help when they have been sexually assaulted or harassed. The controversy rages thirty years on.

Garner writes:

I’m interested in apparently ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.

Why are we ever surprised by the scorched earth around a broken family? Our laws and strictures and conventions have no purchase on the dark regions of the soul into which we venture when we love.

But everyone knows that love is brutal. A thousand songs tell the story. Love tears right through to the centre of us, into our secret self, and lays it wide open.

Surely Sigmund Freud was right when he said,

“We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.”

What people find really hard to bear, I’ve noticed, is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls. Human beings have many shields against this darkness.

There’s a term that would often come up at this point in the conversation. A man like Farquharson, (who drowned his three sons) some people declared, is simply evil. That’s all he is. This means that neither he nor his crime deserves our attention. He is no longer a person.

“He was found guilty by two juries,” one woman said to me. “What else is there to say? I don’t want to hear any more about him.”

Sometimes I tried to argue. More often I backed away with my tail between my legs. But I kept thinking, and I still think, that there are thousands of men like Farquharson out there – hard-working, speechless Australian blokes who don’t understand why their wives got sick of them and turfed them out; dull men whose hearts are broken by rejection and by the loss of their children, and who can’t even begin to articulate their pain and rage. Men like these can be dangerous. Isn’t that worth thinking about? Sydney Writers’ Festival, May 2015.

James Wood of The New Yorker writes:

Robert Farquharson emerges from Garner’s account as limited in intelligence, expression, and will. He lived in the modest town of Winchelsea (not far from Geelong, where Garner was born). He worked as a window cleaner, and had three children with the much more forceful Cindy Gambino, who told the court that Farquharson was “pretty much a softie. He always gave in to what I wanted.” Though he was a “good provider,” she found it hard to stay in love with her husband. Cindy eventually left him, and soon began a new relationship with a contractor, Stephen Moules, a man more vigorous and successful than Farquharson. She kept the children, and Farquharson had to move out. He was jealous of Moules’s access to the children, fearful of being displaced, and angry that the new lover got the better of the Farquharsons’ two cars. An old friend testified that he threatened to kill his children and rob Cindy of her dearest gifts; Garner wonders if Farquharson was really trying to commit suicide.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation. #

In October 1997, Anu Singh, a law student at Canberra’s Australian National University, killed her boyfriend, Joe Cinque. She had first administered Rohypnol to him and then, when he was asleep, twice injected him with potentially lethal doses of heroin. Singh and a fellow law student, Madhavi Rao, were charged and put on trial for Cinque’s murder. Singh was found guilty of manslaughter and Rao exonerated of any involvement in the crime.

Rose Batty #

At home with Rosie Batty

One hot afternoon in February 2014, in the pleasant Victorian township of Tyabb, south-east of Melbourne, an 11-year-old boy called Luke Batty was playing in the nets after cricket practice with his father, Greg Anderson.

Without warning, Anderson swung the bat and dealt the child a colossal blow to the back of his head, then crouched over him where he lay, and attacked him with a knife. The police shot Anderson and he died in hospital the following morning.

Rosie Batty, the young boy’s mother, came out her front gate to address the media. Her thick fair hair was tangled, her face stripped raw.

“I want to tell everybody,” she said to camera, in a low, clear voice with a Midlands accent, “that family violence happens to everybody. No matter how nice your house is, how intelligent you are. It can happen to anyone, and everyone. This has been an 11-year battle. You do the best you can. You’re a victim, and you’re helpless. An intervention order doesn’t stop anything like this from happening.”

It wasn’t so much what she said as her demeanour that stopped people in their tracks. There was something splendid about her, in her quiet devastation. Everyone who saw her was moved, and fascinated. People talked about her with a kind of awe.

Garner had spent a day with the real Rosie Batty, the singular Rosie, I understood that the quality people find so impressive in her is not merely the authority of the brutally bereaved, but also this wisdom, this trust.

At times of great darkness, everything around us becomes symbolic, poetic, archetypal. Perhaps this is what dreaming, and art, are for.

Perhaps this is why we write.

James Wood writes: Helen Garner inspects both herself and her subjects with savage honesty.

In the early nineteen-sixties, when the Australian writer Helen Garner was a student at the University of Melbourne, she had a brief relationship with a twenty-four-year-old man who was her tutor. With characteristic briskness, she tells us that she learned two things from him:

“Firstly, to start an essay without bullshit preamble, and secondly, that betrayal is part of life.” She continues, “I value it as part of my store of experience—part of what I am and how I have learnt to understand the world.”

A writing lesson and a life lesson: Garner’s work as a journalist and a novelist constantly insists on the connection between writing about life and comprehending it; to try to do both responsibly and honestly—without bullshit preamble, or, for that matter, bullshit amble—is what it means to be alive.

“Honesty” is a word that, when thrown at journalism, unhelpfully describes both a baseline and a vaguer horizon, a legal minimum and an ethical summum.

Too often, we precisely monitor the former and profligately praise the latter. In Helen Garner’s case, we should give due thanks for the former and precisely praise the latter. As a writer of nonfiction, Garner is scrupulous, painstaking, and detailed, with sharp eyes and ears. She is everywhere at once, watching and listening, a recording angel at life’s secular apocalypses—“a small grim figure with a notebook and a cold,” as she memorably describes herself. She has written with lucid anger about murder cases, about incidents of sexual harassment, about the experience of caring for a friend dying of cancer.