When you see the word ‘design’ what springs to your mind? Images of elegant and useful objects? Clever technologies to improve your quality of life?
Chances are you don’t immediately think of the design of the AK-47, or the lethal injection used to deliver capital punishment in the USA. According to Paola Antonelli, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the field of design has a hidden history of violence.
Italian-born Antonelli is one of the world’s foremost experts on contemporary architecture and design and she recently co-curated a year and half long MOMA investigation into the relationship between design and violence. Using weekly posts on a WordPress site, the inquiry aimed to provoke questions about the dark side of the world’s ‘second oldest’ profession.
Antonelli says she had always been a ‘cheerleader’ for design until she heard about the development of the 3D printed gun.
‘In a Pollyanna-ish way, I had thought that design was for the betterment of society. But when I heard about that printed gun I had a sudden epiphany – design is always a two-edged sword. I started looking at objects one by one and making a list of those with an ambiguous relationship with violence.’
It turns out history is replete with ingenious designs for violence. From Paleolithic hunting tools to Medieval torture instruments to the French guillotine, humans have worked hard to perfect the art of cruelty. To narrow the focus, Antonelli and her co-curator Jamer Hunt took their cues from contemporary society.
‘We looked at objects such as the plastic handcuffs called flexicuffs and the lethal concoction used for executing death row prisoners in the US. Then we invited experts to contribute an essay about each object. With the flexicuffs, for example, we had a contribution from the judge who had declared New York City’s (allegedly racist) ‘stop and frisk’ police program unconstitutional. For the lethal injection we heard from a man who had spent thirty years on death row before being released.’
The curators then posed questions for visitors to the site to consider. After a post about the slaughterhouse re-design initiated by animal welfare advocate Temple Grandin, visitors to the site were asked – is it possible to re-design a violent act so it is more humane? Many posts provoked heated debates, which was exactly what the curators intended.
As Paola Antonelli points out, violence isn’t always physical. As well as selecting objects, the MOMA curators chose a series of action-based themes to investigate the ways design can be used for ‘evil’ rather than for ‘good’. From hacking (‘disrupting the rules of the system’) to manipulating (‘drawing into the realm of violence with suasion’) to exploding (‘annihilating visibly and completely’), design can be employed to exercise control.
‘As we define it, violence is a manifestation of the power to alter circumstances, against the will of others and to their detriment,’ says Antonelli. ‘Design can be used to intimidate. Totalitarian regimes have had a famously good sense of design, as historians have noted. Sometimes objects are designed for violence and sometimes they are ‘tweaked’ for violence.’
One MOMA post focused on the box cutters allegedly used by the 9/11 plane hijackers – tools originally designed for benign use but employed in the 2001 terrorist attacks with devastating global consequences. ‘Those events were a watershed moment of change in our understanding of violence – a big awakening in the US.’
The curator says one of the inspirations for the MOMA inquiry was Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature in which the author contends we are becoming progressively less violent. Antonelli’s response: ‘Maybe what’s changed is the nature of violence ’.
‘Design can tell us a lot about how much we trust each other. I believe humans are fundamentally good but sometimes things go awry. Design is the same. Well meaning acts of design that were originally aimed at the betterment of society can be tweaked to have the opposite effect. It has been easy for designers to overstep, indulge in temptation, succumb to the dark side of a moral dilemma, or simply err. We need to be more aware of the circumstances of design.’
(This article was first published on the ABC Radio National webpage in October 2015)
The Westgarth Ensemble presents – Who Wears the Pants? operatic music from the Baroque and Classical eras
In the mid 17th century the castrati dominated the operatic stage and were the superstars of the day. Their time is long past but many of the operas created to showcase their particular talents are still performed today. So who wears the pants now? Well, since the castrati voice was far closer to female vocal types, it’s only natural that these days it’s the girls! In this program of soaring operatic quartets, trios and duets from the Baroque and Classical eras, all of the ensembles feature a mixture of female and male (formerly castrati) roles. Can you tell who’s wearing the pants?
Featuring works by: Monteverdi, Handel, Gluck, Vinci, Vivaldi and Mozart.
When: Wednesday 18th November, 1:00pm
Where: St Paul’s Cathedral, Flinders St, Melbourne (entry by donation)
Who: The Westgarth Ensemble – Claire McDonald, Katrena Mitchell and Sian Prior (sopranos) and Kerrie Bolton (mezzo) accompanied by Greg Smith (pianist)
Background: The members of The Westgarth Ensemble have been singing together since 1997. Graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio, they have all worked for a range of Australian opera companies and ensembles. In recent years they have been presenting themed vocal concerts in venues around Victoria. In 2014 they performed ‘Secret Music of the Baroque’ at the Armadale Uniting Church and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Kerrie Bolton graduated from Melbourne University with a Batchelor of Music Performance, furthered her studies in the UK and completed a Master of Music Performance at the Victorian College of the Arts. Kerrie performs regularly with the choruses of both Opera Australia and Victorian Opera and as a soloist with many companies including Melbourne Opera, Lyric Opera, Chamber Made and with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic.
Claire Macdonald commenced her tertiary studies at the Melba Conservatorium of Music and continued post-graduate study at the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio. She is currently the instrumental department co-coordinator of voice at Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School and works frequently as a soloist in recitals and concert performances.
Katrena Mitchell is a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio. A fellowship at the State Library of Victoria focusing on baroque vocal music has resulted in a series of concerts exploring aspects of this rich music period. As well as concert performances Katrena has performed various operatic roles with Eastern Metropolitan Opera. She also programs music for ABC Classic FM.
Sian Prior graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio in 1999. She has performed with Operalive, More Than Opera, Opera Sessions, Divas Inc. and at the Macedon Music and Castlemaine Festivals. Sian is also a writer and broadcaster who can be heard presenting on Classic FM and 774 ABC Melbourne. Her memoir Shy was published in 2014. sianprior.com
Greg Smith was born in NZ and studied composition at the University of Canterbury. Despite his teaching duties he maintains a constant performing profile. His skills in Musical Direction have been sought in many professional productions, including “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in Asia, NZ and Australia (Really Useful), “Hello Again” (Halogen), “Putting It Together”, “A New Brain” and “Falsettos”. Greg has played keyboards in productions of “Mamma Mia”, “Cats”, “Les Miserables”, “Into the Woods”, “42nd Street”, “Me & My Girl”, “Pirates of Penzance” and “Evita”. He has also performed the role of Manny Weinstock in Terance McNally’s “Masterclass” at the Court Theatre in Christchurch. A versatile accompanist and repetiteur, Greg can play anything from figured bass to jazz and rock. His operatic highlights were playing in “Eugene Onegin” and working with Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Dame Malvina Major.
On the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the murder of the Balibo Five i am posting this essay originally commissioned and published by Meanjin literary magazine:
Their eyes stare straight out at you from five grainy black-and-white photos on the wall. Such young faces, framed by luxuriant waves of hair in various stages of bouffant rebellion. The hair is unmistakably from the seventies, but those eyes could be staring at you from any decade. The men’s facial expressions seem to cover the spectrum of human emotions. Malcolm Rennie is grinning, Brian Peters has a half-smile, and there’s a faint wry twist to Gary Cunningham’s lips. But Greg Shackleton is furrow-browed and there is something haunted in Tony Stewart’s serious, wide-eyed gaze.
Resisting the tabloid temptation to interpret this as a look of foreboding, I remind myself that most of these photos were professional portraits, posed by media men whose working lives revolved around cameras. None of them expected to die for that privilege.
The photos hang on the wall of a small house in the village of Balibo, near the north-west coast of Timor-Leste. The wall has had a fresh coat of powder-blue paint, courtesy of cash from the Victorian Government, and the house has been renamed the Balibo Community Learning Centre. Until recently, though, it was known as ‘The House of the Flag’. The fresh paint has covered up the outline of an Australian flag hastily daubed on the wall by Channel Seven news reporter Greg Shackleton sometime on 11 October 1975, and shown in one of his last TV broadcasts from what was then called Portuguese Timor.
Now it is June 2005, and inside the dimly lit house there’s a group of Timorese women doing a sewing workshop, and a handful of Australian travellers who’ve come to pay homage. The Timorese women nod and smile at the visitors but we Australians avoid each other’s gaze. Tears seem self-indulgent here.
Back outside in the tropical afternoon, I consider climbing up to the jagged ruins of a Portuguese fort at the top of the hill to the left. But they look deserted so I turn right into the main square, where a clutch of children are milling around the foot of a monument. Erected by the Indonesians to celebrate East Timor’s so-called ‘integration’ into the neighbouring republic in 1976, its plinth supports the triumphal figure of a Timorese man carrying a flag almost as big as he is.
I am reminded of images captured by television reporters in the previous century, pictures of giant statues of Stalin and Lenin being toppled by exultant crowds in post-communist Eastern Europe. Those images will be replayed over and over in decades to come, shorthand symbols of the human will to freedom and self-determination, and of the media’s role in bearing witness to those moments in history.
Here in Balibo, the statue stands firm as the children kick a frayed soccer ball against the base and wait for their mothers to emerge from the community centre. The kids seem happy enough to have their photos taken by the latest Australian journalist to visit this town, and some of them hold their fingers up in a V sign. V for Viva Xanana Gusmão? V for peace? For victory?
Behind the statue, on the other side of the square, is a row of burnt-out buildings—roofless and daubed with fresh graffiti—the latest monuments to Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of Timor-Leste. They were torched by departing troops in 1999 after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. I move closer and take a photo of these charred shells of former homes, to remind myself of the criminal spite that accompanied that long-awaited separation.
Before continuing on my journey southwards, I return to the powder-blue wall to take a last look at those staring faces, and try to commit those five names to memory: Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters, Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart.
In June 2009 I ask a class of Australian journalism students, aged between about twenty and fifty, if they have heard of the Balibo Five. When less than a quarter of them hesitantly raise their hands, I find myself wondering—when did this phrase disappear from our communal vocabulary? How has this Grimms tale of calculated murder and political subterfuge been allowed to disappear from the public sphere, and how should it be told now, to bring it back to life?
Once upon a time there was a tiny nation with large oil reserves and an aggressive neighbour to its west. When the aggressive neighbour decided to annex the tiny nation by force, another near neighbour to the south (with an appetite for oil) decided to turn a blind eye. But the southern neighbour had a long tradition of media freedom and so a bunch of intrepid news gatherers travelled north to the tiny nation to bear witness to these events.
The aggressive neighbour didn’t want any foreign witnesses to the invasion, so when it found five of the intrepid newsmen filming its cross-border incursion into a small town called Balibo, it had them killed and their bodies burnt to cinders.
This was rather awkward for the leaders of southern neighbour, but nevertheless they continued to turn a blind eye to the murder and mayhem going on to their north, secretly hoping that the world would forget about the tiny nation.
But the colleagues, friends and relations of the murdered newsmen couldn’t forget, and down through the decades the words ‘the Balibo Five’ became synonymous with a dirty little secret—a political cover-up—and a tiny nation of people who were still waiting and hoping for someone to bear witness to their story.
Queensland communications academic Alan McKee defines the public sphere as the virtual space ‘where each of us finds out what’s happening in our community, and what social, cultural and political issues are facing us … where we add our voices to the discussions… in the process of reaching a consensus or compromise about what should be done’.1 The term ‘public sphere’ encompasses more than just the news stories being reported in the media—the trends and products of popular culture influence the so-called ‘water-cooler’ topics too—but the media have long had a central role in forming our collective memory and defining the stories we tell each other in this huge public conversation.
Gurus of contemporary broadcasting use a simple image to describe how radio presenters should conceive of their role in these discussions, advising them to imagine they are chatting with their listeners around the kitchen table.
Over the past three decades, the Balibo Five have drifted in and out of Australian kitchen-table conversations. Unless you were personally connected to any of the central players in this story, chances are you would only hear about them when one of the friends or relatives of the five men gained media coverage for their latest plea for a full investigation into the newsmen’s deaths.
And there were understandable reasons why Australians of all political persuasions would be reluctant to spend too much time thinking and talking about the Balibo Five. Even if the exact details of the events of October 1975 remained unclear, enough information had been reported by interested journalists to indicate that, for reasons of political expedience and/or anticipated fiscal benefit, members of the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating ministries had all been either active or complicit in covering up the murders of the five newsmen. Successive governments had tried to shape the official history—and thereby the dominant collective memory—of these events by framing the deaths as regrettable accidents amid distant and inevitable conflict. And we the Australian voters had let them get away with it.
Furthermore, any discussions about the Balibo Five led inevitably to consideration of the fate of the East Timorese people, following their nation’s forcible incorporation into Indonesia as its twenty-seventh province (a move whose legality was formally acknowledged only by Indonesia and Australia). Symbolically led by Timorese foreign-minister-in-exile Jose Ramos Horta traipsing the corridors of the United Nations in New York, small groups of Timorese ex-pats and international activists dedicated to the cause of their independence (including Greg Shackleton’s wife Shirley Shackleton) persisted in reminding us of the violence being perpetrated against our Second World War allies by their Indonesian colonisers.
In short, this was a story that provoked feelings of shame, and nothing sends a conversationalist scuttling away from the kitchen table faster than a curdling sense of shame. But the story kept bubbling up and, as it was told and retold, new details were added and new and at times contested layers of meaning were attached to the lives and deaths of the Balibo Five.
Australian journalist Jill Jolliffe was in East Timor in 1975 at the same time as the five newsmen, and declined an offer to join them on their trip to Balibo. She remained behind in the capital, Dili, and was one of the two journalists (the other was the ABC’s Tony Maniaty) who first reported the television newsmen missing.
Jolliffe’s early involvement led to a three-decade-long personal pursuit of the truth about the circumstances of their deaths. She has since filed countless stories about East Timor and the Balibo Five for print and broadcast media, and in 2001 she documented her findings in forensic detail in her book Cover-Up.2
Jill Jolliffe’s book also pays tribute to a sixth journalist from Australia whose story became inextricably—and fatally—linked to that of the five newsmen. By December 1975, AAP correspondent Roger East was the last remaining foreign journalist in East Timor and his final assignment was to try to find out exactly what had happened in Balibo. But Roger East was shot dead in Dili by Indonesian forces on 8 December, the day after their full-scale military invasion of the East Timorese capital began.
The author of Cover-Up is in no doubt about what she describes as the terrible cost for the Timorese of those six deaths: with ‘the elimination of all independent observers to its actions … the invading force was no longer subject to restraint of any kind’.3 Furthermore, she asserts, ‘the film (that the Balibo Five) had in their cameras could have changed the course of history’.4 For Jill Jolliffe, the story of the Balibo Five is a tale of moral delinquency: ‘Understanding what happened at Balibo is the key to understanding the complicity of successive Australian governments, Labor and Liberal, in the Indonesian military occupation of East Timor.’5
Tony Maniaty, the other Australian journalist who alerted his nation to the disappearance of the Balibo Five, agrees with Jolliffe that their story should be kept alive. These days Maniaty teaches journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, but in October 1975 he was working in Portuguese Timor for the ABC and met the Channel Seven crew on the road as they were heading west to Dili. He was fleeing back to the capital after the invading militias had shot at him and his ABC crew in Balibo, and tried to warn the newcomers of the dangers they would face in the border town.
At the Melbourne launch of his new book Shooting Balibo Tony Maniaty described how he thought the Indonesians would have responded to the Australian Government’s inaction over the five deaths: ‘They must have thought, how easy is this! Nobody’s watching, nobody cares.’
But Maniaty’s analysis of the impact of the five journalists’ deaths differs significantly from that of Jill Jolliffe. ‘People say that if they’d been able to get it to air, that film footage might have been able to stop the war against East Timor, but I don’t think so’, he told his audience. And when I asked for his answer to the rhetorical question he poses in the book—‘why the fate of a small group of journalists from a past generation matters in this one’—Maniaty’s views again diverged from Jolliffe’s: ‘Speaking as a teacher of journalism, it’s important that we go back to see what can be learnt from that tragedy. It’s an opportunity to talk to a new generation of journalists about what went wrong and what not to do. Because no story is worth a life.’
And he’s right, of course. No-one should have to die for the privilege of bearing witness to acts of injustice and inhumanity. And yet history is replete with examples of how these crazy-brave news reporters have had an impact—at times incremental, at times dramatic—on the course of events they have been covering.
There is now general consensus that without the startling Vietnam War footage gathered by cameramen such as Australian Neil Davis (whose work was celebrated in the 1980 film Frontline by another crazy-brave Australian, documentary-maker David Bradbury) and broadcast on the television sets of voting Australians and Americans, the war would have lasted longer than it did. And in East Timor, sixteen years after the events in Balibo, the actions of three courageous foreign news gatherers were to influence the course of the independence movement throughout the 1990s.
On 12 November 1991, two US journalists and a British cameraman were caught up in the massacre of around two hundred and fifty East Timorese mourners by Indonesian troops in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. Americans Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn were beaten by Indonesian soldiers, and Yorkshire Television cameraman Max Stahl caught the violent events at the cemetery on film. Stahl’s footage was later smuggled out of the country and, along with the eyewitness accounts of the two American journalists, broadcast around the world.
This irrefutable evidence of the Indonesian campaign of repression against the East Timorese not only galvanised pro-independence protests around the world, but it led to diplomatic reprisals against Indonesia by the Portuguese and US governments, and to increased debate in Indonesia about the ongoing annexation of East Timor. The widespread international media coverage of the joint 1996 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Jose Ramos Horta and Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo for their ‘sustained efforts to hinder the oppression of a small people’reinforced the growing feeling in Indonesia that East Timor was a problem requiring a new solution. The debate culminated in the 1998 decision by then Indonesian President Habibie to hold a referendum in 1999 on ‘special autonomy’ for East Timor, and a quarter-century after the withdrawal of their Portuguese colonisers, the East Timorese were finally able to vote for independence.
We will never know whether the stories contained in the final film footage of the Balibo Five might have ‘changed the course of history’. But like a classic Grimms fable without a happy ending, the story of their deaths has functioned as a morality tale in Australian public life. It has been a persistent reminder of how even the most apparently benign governments should never be trusted to tell ‘the whole truth’ about their motivations, actions and inactions when relations with other powerful nations are seen to be at stake—and of the vital role of a culture of investigative news-reporting in attempting to hold those governments to account.
As Jill Jolliffe documents so convincingly in Cover-Up, even after political pressure led two Australian foreign ministers (Gareth Evans in 1995 and Alexander Downer in 1998) to commission reports into the deaths of the Balibo Five,6 key questions remained unanswered about exactly who was responsible for ordering the five deaths, and what role the Australian Government and its intelligence services played in the events in East Timor during and after October 1975.
More recently, following the 2007 Coronial Inquiry into the death of Brian Peters, the NSW Coroner concluded that the men died ‘from wounds sustained when [they were] shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces’ and recommended that criminal proceedings be commenced against the alleged Indonesian perpetrators.7 As yet, however, no such proceedings have been instituted, and Jill Jolliffe is calling for a new criminal investigation into the matter.
For those journalists who have followed the story, either actively in the case of Jolliffe and Maniaty or (in my case) from a distance, the actions of the Balibo Five have been a kind of professional moral measuring stick. How far would you go to get the story, if you were convinced that it should be told? Would you go as far as those five men did—or as far as Roger East, who lost his life in pursuit of the story of their deaths?
In Shooting Balibo, Tony Maniaty uses the term ‘survivor guilt’ to explain why he has been consumed by the events of October 1975 for more than thirty years. He told the audience at his Melbourne book launch that ‘no story is worth a life’, and yet he also describes his own decision to leave East Timor before the full-scale Indonesian invasion as a ‘strange failure’.8
Perhaps it is in part survivor guilt that has compelled journalists Jolliffe and Maniaty to keep asking questions about the fate of their dead colleagues over the past three decades. And the stories of these two journalists in particular have formed the basis of the new Australian feature film Balibo, released in August 2009.
Tony Maniaty claims to have first alerted filmmaker Robert Connolly to the cinematic potential of the events in Balibo when the two men met at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 1993.9 Connolly produced a short film written by Maniaty at AFTRS, and went on to write, direct and/or produce a number of award-winning Australian feature films, including Romulus My Father, The Boys, The Bank and Three Dollars, before co-writing and directing Balibo. In 2008, at the invitation of Robert Connolly, Maniaty returned to East Timor for the first time since 1975 during the film shoot to relate his memories of those events to the Australian cast members.
Jill Jolliffe’s book Cover-Up is listed in the film’s credits as one the key sources for the Balibo screenplay. Her reconstructions of the Balibo Five’s deaths, based on the accounts of eyewitnesses whom she tracked down and interviewed over many years, are re-enacted in shocking detail in Connolly’s film, as is the brutal killing of Roger East in Dili several months later.
Co-executive producer of Balibo Anthony LaPaglia, who also plays Roger East in the film, has said that it was the core group of Australian writers, activists and surviving relatives who kept the Balibo story alive: ‘I asked them all the same question: Why would you devote your life to this? … There’s an old saying: There’s a special place in hell for those who witness atrocities and do nothing about it. And I don’t think they want to go there.’10
Robert Connolly (interviewed in this issue of Meanjin) has carefully structured the film’s narrative using the ‘Russian doll’ technique of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. At the core is the re-enactment of what happened to the Balibo Five, as described to Roger East—whose own story is then related by a Timorese eyewitness to East’s death. The Timorese woman’s testimony opens and closes the story, and this plot device is a fitting acknowledgement of the fact that, while concerned Australians have played a part in seeking justice for this nation, and some have lost their loved ones—or their lives—in the process, it is the East Timorese people themselves who have suffered most for the goal of independence.
The filmmakers have incorporated in the movie some of the archival footage shot by the five newsmen, and restaged other filmed material, including the moment when Greg Shackleton daubs the Australian flag on the wall of the house in Balibo. They show the five adrenalin-charged young men doggedly pursuing that final footage which Jill Jolliffe believes could have changed the course of history—proof that Indonesian troops were pouring across the border between West and East Timor.
The film does not attempt to describe the subsequent political cover-up of what happened to the five newsmen, but by presenting their deaths as cold-blooded murders, it leaves viewers in no doubt about which version of history should be remembered when the Balibo Five are discussed around the kitchen tables of local film-goers. It remains to be seen whether the renewed interest in this story following the film’s release could see the wheels of justice begin to turn again for the families and friends of the dead men.
But if you stay to watch the credits roll at the end of the film, you will find those same five grainy black and white faces staring out at you from the big screen, as images of the actors are replaced with photos of the real players in this memorable Australian story: Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters, Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart.
1 Alan McKee, The Public Sphere: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2005, pp. 4, 5.
2 Jill Jolliffe, Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five, Scribe, Melbourne, 2001; revised edition under the title Balibo, Scribe, released in July 2009.
3 Jolliffe, Cover-Up, pp. 108, 109.
4 Jolliffe, Cover-Up, p. 3.
5 Jolliffe, Cover-Up, p. 6.
6 See, for example, Tom Sherman’s Second Report on the Deaths of Australian-Based Journalists in East Timor in 1975, January 1999.
7 Jolliffe, Balibo, pp. 351, 352.
8 Tony Maniaty, Shooting Balibo, Penguin, Melbourne, 2009, p. 23.
9 Maniaty, p. 7.
10 ‘Balibo film gives voice to Timor victims’, Australian, 15 July 2008.
I’ve never liked the term ‘mid life crisis’. It reduces what can be a revelatory phase in your life to a histrionic headline. When I turned fifty late last year there was no crisis. There was a time of reckoning.
In 2014 I published my first book, completed a PhD, clocked up a decade as a freelancer and hit my half-century. To reward myself for this quadrella of significant events I sold my old car, bought a small van and, with the help of my stepfather, converted it into a campervan. I was single and without dependents. I had found temporary tenants to rent my home. It was time to untether myself.
In the first week of winter this year I left my hometown of Melbourne and headed north. For three months I noodled up and down the east coast of Australia in my little van. Along the way I kayaked to islands and hiked to lighthouses, danced to eighties music at RSL clubs and took endless photos of pelicans. Interstate friends and relations who I hadn’t seen for decades contacted me with generous offers of accommodation and companionship. And I made a pilgrimage to the northern NSW beach where my father drowned fifty years ago.
Along the way I gave myself permission to park the van under shady trees, lie down on the mattress in the back and do nothing but think. I thought about the last fifty years and the next fifty years. Hubris? One of my grandfathers made it to 102, so there’s a chance I’m not even half way to the end.
I thought about all the things I’d wanted but would never have, and all the things I’ve had that I hadn’t known I wanted. Thoughts trickled rather than cascaded. Hours flowed rather than scrambled. Decisions came to me slowly but clearly. Yes I could write another book. No I wouldn’t apply for that full-time job my conscience had been nagging me about. Yes I do love my precarious freelance working life. No I don’t want to relinquish the freedom to untether myself from daily life when I need to. Yes I have learnt a few useful things in the past fifty years.
There is a poem by Judith Wright called Turning Fifty in which she describes drinking her morning coffee and tasting ‘my fifty years here in a cup’. The poet’s mind, like the coffee she savours, is ‘dark, bitter, neutral, clean, sober as morning’. Turning fifty is a sobering thing. Bodies have become unreliable vehicles. Physical pain has become a constant companion rather than a temporary annoyance.
Watching the grey nomads doing their gentle laps in the camp park swimming pools, I understood the fear that drove them up and down, up and down. Just keep moving. If you stop it will be hard to start again.
‘These years we live scar flesh and mind’ wrote Judith Wright. By fifty we’re all bearing these scars. People we loved have let us down or let us go. People we respected have failed to live up to our unreasonable expectations of them. Death has begun stalking the perimeter of our circle of attachment, picking people off. We cannot protect them, or ourselves.
As I meandered along in the van the digital post delivered news from people within that precious circle of mine. Dying parents, newborn grandchildren, dying marriages, newborn love affairs. Everyone, it seemed, was going through a time of reckoning.
Meanwhile the pelicans floated serenely past on those great bodies of water that permeate the Australian coastline, oblivious to our little dramas.
So what else did I glean from all that thinking time? I’ve done some dumb things but some of them ended well. I’ve hurt some people but some love me still. Courage has sometimes failed me but courage is not finite. I may have another fifty years to acquire it. It’s not too late to ‘show my colours’, as Judith Wright said.
This winter I paid two visits to the beach where my father drowned. On the first visit I donned my wetsuit and entered the surf. When the water reached my thighs I retreated back to my towel. The tow was too strong. Some risks are not worth taking. This is something I have learnt.
On the second visit there was no tow. There were whales on the horizon. I strode out into the surf and caught wave after wave. I tasted my fifty years there in the sea. Bittersweet, neutral, clean.
(This article was published in The Big Issue in September 2015.)
I was recently asked to answer a few questions for Writers Victoria about writing memoirs, in the lead-up to the course i’m running for them from September till December.
– – Writing about the details of your life is a daunting task for anyone. Does being shy make this even more difficult?
I don’t want to downplay how difficult it is for ANYONE to write a self-revealing memoir, but one of the key characteristics of shyness (or social anxiety) is ‘fear of negative evaluation’. So there is perhaps an added stress when a shy memoirist imagines their readers reading about all their strange and shameful little fears. But for most memoirs to work there has to be something at stake for the author, and for me, dealing with that fear of self-revelation and potential rejection (by imagined readers) meant there was definitely something at stake for the author in writing ‘Shy’.
– – ‘Shy’ isn’t a straightforward memoir. It includes glossaries of psychological terms, interviews, lists and more. What drew you towards such an experimental format?
In part I was just playing around, having fun with language, and in part I was trying to mimic the way my brain works and perhaps how other shy people’s brains work. I often use lists as a way of managing my anxiety. They help me deal with the incessant ‘what ifs’. And I do interviews for a living, as journalist. So that was familiar territory for me. And I grew up surrounded by the language of psychology because my mother is a psychologist. I hope that those quirky ingredients give readers particular insights into the person they’re reading about.
– – Writing can be an intimidating profession. A shy writer might find it difficult to attend writers’ festivals or share their work with critique groups. Do you have any advice for shy writers struggling to engage with the writing community?
Remember that audiences respect and relate to vulnerability. I’ve had people say they wanted to hug me when they heard me talking about my shyness. Effective personal writing stimulates empathy in the reader, so you can feel safe that your readers and listeners at writers’ festivals are ‘on your side’. And remember that you know more than anyone else about your topic. You are in control. You only have to tell the audience what you feel comfortable telling them. Keep some of your secrets. They’re important.
– – When you’re writing about people from your life, how do you balance worrying about how they’ll react to recognising themselves in print with the need to tell your story?
There is no single or simple answer to that question. Everyone has to map out their own ethical comfort zone. Keep your readers in mind. They will know if you’ve deliberately ‘done the dirty’ on someone, or over-praised someone, and judge you for it. I made sure I got approval from my immediate family before sending my memoir manuscript out to publishers. I changed the names of most of my friends and former partners to protect their privacy, and consulted with many of them. I tried to be as honest as possible, and as self-critical as necessary. That’s all I could do.
– – How should someone writing about their life decide which episodes to include and which to exclude?
You need to be clear about the difference between the situation(s) you’re describing and the story you want to tell. Situations are not necessarily interesting. Good stories are. Unless each episode relates in some way – directly or indirectly – to the insights you want to convey to your reader, your memoir can fill up with unimportant and potentially uninteresting material. We will cover this topic in some detail during the Refine Your Memoir workshops.
We’ve all been there. Walking down a dark laneway at night, our senses suddenly hyper-acute, checking for danger. Listening behind us for footsteps breaking into a run. Listening ahead of us for footsteps falling silent. Using our ears because our eyes don’t work so well in the dark.
This has been my experience night after night as I’ve walked home from the local train station. When you’re a theatre critic night work is inevitable. Most of the time I feel lucky to be living only a ten-minute stroll to the train. And yet, night after night, I’ve had to steel myself to enter the long dark alley between the station and the end of my street.
The statistics are horrible. Two Australian women are killed every week. One in three Australian women have been physically assaulted. One in five Australian women have been sexually assaulted. Whilst more men than women are assaulted, and most assaults on women occur in the home, nevertheless a quarter of all assaults occur on the streets. Your eyes are probably glazing over right now from this barrage of brutal numbers. But we’ve all seen CCTV images of women being pursued down the street by the men who will soon kill them.
These images are the ones that haunt us when we’re out walking late at night with shadowy figures following close behind, our heart racing, our stride quickening.All women know this fear deep in their guts, even the tall, strong, middle-aged, flat-heeled ones like me.
‘Flat-heeled!’ I hear you say. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’ We feminists have spent decades trying to persuade each other that we can – and should – wear whatever we like out there. That no one has the right to curb our impulses when we’re flicking through a wardrobe. That we shouldn’t have to dress conservatively to feel safe on the streets. And we’re right about that.
Still, it makes me anxious to see young women wearing heels so high that running would be impossible. I keep an eye on those young women as they walk ahead of me into the dark alley outside the train station, priming myself in case they need help. I wear flat heels when I’m planning to use that alley to get home after a night at the theatre. Just in case I have to run.
When I was a teenager men would sometimes follow me home from the train station. On a couple of occasions these men caught up to me, unzipped themselves and masturbated in front of me. One night on a dark platform my girlfriend and I were surrounded by a group of young men who began tugging at our clothes. That night we had to run.
When I was in my early twenties I did a course in self-defence for women. ‘Stand tall and shout at them’, we were told. ‘If that doesn’t work, try poking them in the eyes or kneeing them in the crotch. They won’t expect you to be aggressive’. Sometimes in that station laneway I ball my fists as I’m walking, hoping I’ll look tough. But no one can see how tough I am. It’s too dark.
Six months ago my fear prompted me to phone the local council and ask if they could install some lights in the laneway. The initial response was promising. There would be an inspection and someone would get back to me. The follow-up phone call was less promising. There was no budget for this kind of thing and besides, the council employee told me, there was plenty of light down there on the night of his inspection.
‘What was the moon like that evening?’ I enquired. With a full moon it’s not quite so bad in that alley.
‘Oh, there’s always moonlight,’ he replied cheerily.
Now I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure that for half of every month the moon provides about as much illumination as a candle in a cathedral – or less. It took all my willpower not to say ‘astronomy-fail’ out loud. Instead I reminded him there had recently been a number of night-time attacks on women in neighbouring suburbs. Some of those women never made it home. He agreed to ‘have a closer look’ at the lighting question.
A little while ago there was another phone call. Somehow they’d found money in the budget and solar-powered lights would be installed in the alley. Mr Moonlight and I congratulated each other on a job well done.
It’s a small victory but it feels huge. I’m sick to death of feeling afraid when I walk the streets alone at night. I’m sick of my own ambivalent feelings about what clothing women should wear to feel safe. I’m sick of having to convince myself that violence against women is not an inevitable part of the human condition.
Thirty years ago I marched in Reclaim The Night rallies. Back then I believed mass political protest would lead to permanent social change. These days my ambitions are more modest. I’m going to try to re-reclaim the night one solar light at a time. You might want to join me. And if anyone tells you that women should take responsibility for the violence visited upon them, you could try saying, ‘Yeah, you’re right, and of course there’s always moonlight’.
(a version of this article was published in The Age on October 18th 2015)
‘Dad has no idea how paralysing this thing is. I never want to talk to him again’.
These miserable words appeared recently in a Facebook message from my teenage friend Anna*. Her father had been giving her a hard time about not finding a part-time job. He accused his daughter (and not for the first time) of being lazy and of sponging off her parents. In fact Anna is suffering from a form of anxiety so severe that some days she can’t leave the house.
Anna’s father is a fearless extrovert. Like her mother, though, Anna is very shy. Shyness is an inherited temperament trait that often manifests as social anxiety; our nervous systems are hard-wired to avoid those we don’t know intimately. Some of us may eventually find ways to feel safe in the company of strangers. Others develop full-blown social phobia and endure lives of quiet desperation. The difference sometimes comes down to how we are parented.
One of the first people to make a study of the experience of shyness was Charles Darwin. A century and half ago Darwin described shyness as one of ‘the mental states which induce blushing’.
‘It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance’, Darwin wrote, ‘but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush. Shyness seems to depend on sensitiveness to the opinion, whether good or bad, of others, more especially with respect to external appearance.’
The scientist writes tenderly about his two year old son who behaved shyly towards his father after Darwin had returned from a weeklong absence. Darwin begs his readers not to judge shy children when they avoided the scrutiny of ‘the unmerciful spectator’.
One hundred and fifty years on, Darwin’s findings have been confirmed by psychologists specialising in social anxiety. According to Professor Ron Rapee, head of the Centre for Emotional Health in Sydney, at the core of social anxiety is fear of negative judgement. ‘A diagnosis (of social anxiety) requires that people avoid social situations because of that concern about being evaluated by others.’
Rapee says a lot of shy people have physical symptoms like shaking and blushing. Some of them are able to ‘get on with life and don’t let it stop them. But people who are highly shy are the ones most likely to be socially phobic’.
The Centre for Emotional Health offers a range of resources for the parents of anxious kids, including public talks, downloadable fact sheets and treatment sessions. They also conduct research into the impacts of shyness on children. For example, one study shows how an innate dislike of uncertainty is part of the distress experienced by young people with socially anxiety. Another confirms that social anxiety can get in the way of children making friends.
I recall my own mother trying to encourage me to deal with my dislike of uncertainty when it came to making childhood friends. In my memoir Shy (Text Publishing) I describe how I found it almost impossible to visit my friend Sally who lived just around the corner.
My anxious mind was so full of ‘what ifs’ (what if she doesn’t want me there?) that my mother had to bribe me with coins to make the journey to Sally’s place.
My mother’s instincts were right; gentle encouragement with rewards for risk-taking can be very helpful for shy children. On the other hand a response like that of Anna’s father – punishing a shy child for her fears – can only add to their distress.
Later in life my mother pursued her interest in children’s behaviour and became a psychologist specialising in the study of temperament. In researching my memoir I interviewed Professor Margot Prior (aka mum) about her findings.
‘If, by the time you’re nine or ten, you’ve been shy all along and you’re still shy then it’s a pretty enduring characteristic’, she told me. ‘But lots of kids are initially shy and grow out of it. The way the parents handle it can make a difference. It’s hard if the parents are biologically inclined to be shy and are modelling shy behaviour. But if the parents model brave behaviour, then that can help.’
According to a set of guidelines distributed by the Centre for Emotional Health, the three most important things a parent can do for a socially anxious child are to show them affection and acceptance, to stay emotionally in touch with them and to support their attempts to be more independent.
‘Respond consistently to your child in a warm, loving, supportive and respectful way, and support their autonomy. Be involved in the various aspects of your child’s life and engage in fun activities. Know who your child’s friends are, take an interest in what (they’re) doing,’ the guidelines advise.
Everything in moderation, though: ‘Being over-protective of a child gives them the message that the world is a dangerous place. It is important that children be allowed to take age-appropriate risks, attempt difficult tasks and learn from their mistakes’.
Being impatient with their anxiety can be unhelpful, as can pushing them too far too fast. ‘For example it may not be helpful to encourage your teenager to enter a singing contest if they’re not yet comfortable singing in front of the family.’ In Anna’s case, perhaps fronting up for a job interview is simply a bridge too far for a teenager struggling with social anxiety. If fear of negative evaluation is a problem then she may need to gain more confidence dealing with unknown adults before she puts herself in a situation where she is being judged as a job applicant.
Writer Kate Holden, author of the best-selling memoir In My Skin describes herself as having been a shy child: ‘My mother tells me that when we’d go to my friends’ birthday parties I wouldn’t leave her side. Then she would invite all these people for my birthday parties and I would run away and hide while they all sang happy birthday to the cake,’ she laughs.
Holden has vivid memories of being tormented by her fears. ‘I remember at school being asked to do something for a theatre class and freezing up. I sat on the side curling tighter and tighter into a little bundle with my knees up to my chin saying ‘no no no’. Eventually my teachers contacted my parents and suggested I see a psychologist. After six weeks the psychologist said ‘Leave her alone, stop pestering her, she’s not comfortable with this and not good at relating to people in these situations.’ ’
In my own battles with shyness I discovered that I could behave more confidently and take more risks in the workplace than in social situations. Feeling professionally useful allowed me to focus less on my own anxieties. Kate Holden describes in her memoir In My Skin how she found an escape from her shyness whilst working in a brothel, where she could hide behind her professional persona as a sex worker.
Understanding more about the causes and effects of my shyness has certainly helped me to feel less embarrassed by it and to take more control of it. I’ve sent copies of the guidelines for parenting anxious children to both Anna and her father. Perhaps the advice they contain will help this father and daughter find common ground.
- Anna’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
This article was first published in The Best You magazine (UK)
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