Good Reading : September 2008
SEPTEMBER 2008 ı goodreading 27 behind the book I’d cook him a farewell stew with nails in it. I have no tolerance for bullies, and what I shockingly discovered is that I struggle to empathise with the bullied who do not take action to protect themselves (and even more maddeningly, their children). Once I happened to hear a caller phoning in to a radio station and complaining to the doctor, ‘Doctor when I press my toe, it hurts.’ His medical advice? ‘Don’t press your toe.’ I had to suppress my desire to dispense this strategy for pain avoidance to many of my clients. Despite how versed I was in the psychology of the syndrome and the phases of the cycle of violence, I never got used to the push-me-pull-you nature of battered women’s psyche. I’d sometimes work for weeks with a woman, preparing her for trial, only to have her not appear on the day, or for her to leave a message for me that she was going back (she rarely wanted to speak to me again once she’d made her mind up).That’s why we, as counsellors, needed debriefing sessions.You could never help taking a woman’s decision to ‘go back’ personally, though rationally you knew it had bugger all to do with you. It is possible to hear too many stories. I stopped holding on to them, just let them pass through me, above the neck, no longer via the pulmonary muscle. Stories fell from their thread, like beads off a broken necklace. It became a scramble for personal lucidity, never mind patience. I got to that point. I got to the point where I knew if I heard another woman tell me her tale, I risked an outburst I would regret, along the lines of, ‘Are you STUPID? What are you waiting for?’ Compassion fatigue is a form of emotional collapse. It brings down more than just the walls of our idealism – it kicks the feet out from our ability to look strangers in the eye, and our willingness to do anything remotely kind for another person. I left POWA brittle. I moved to advocacy work, where I was shielded from face-to-face encounters with victims (or survivors, if you’re anxious about your PC cred) and instead dealt with law-makers and police officers who themselves were battling to fit the nebulous morphing contours of gender violence into law’s four-cornered boxes. Ironically, just at the point that I’d had enough, I was considered ‘an expert’ in the field of gender violence in South Africa. I was invited by the Minister of Justice to sit on a Committee to draft new domestic violence legislation. Of course I accepted. I spent a year helping put together an astonishingly progressive piece of domestic violence legislation drawn from research all over the world: we extended the definition of domestic violence, we gave magistrates discretion, we allowed lock-outs of men from homes they owned. On paper, it was a masterpiece. But without a network to implement, support and monitor its pioneering provisions, it was a statutory Tibetan prayer flag. Pity we never thought to hang it out for the wind. Ten years later, a decade and continent away from that time, I was sifting through a box of old letters and came across three pages of pencilled writing with little love hearts and child-like drawings along the borders. History hijacks us like that – I’d forgotten all about Riekie and her lesbian lover. I had made some phone calls. Found them a place in a shelter that would take a lesbian couple. I had organised for her little girl to be assessed for sexual assault by the father. (It was unprofessional, but I cried with shameless relief when the report came back that she was ‘intact’.) ‘I will never forget what you did for us…andIknowIamanobody, but someday I will pay you back … you will see …’ she had written. I wondered if Riekie had crawled her way back from that terrible place and if she’d pretend not to recognise me if she saw me again. Gratitude can become its own burden, wearying both the bearer and receiver. I folded that letter and put it back with my precious documents. I have no idea why I kept it. It embarrassed me even more now. A day or so later I wrote, ‘There are not many useful things you can say to a woman whose sister has been stabbed to death with a pair of scissors.’ I knocked out the first chapter of Things Without A Name as if it were one long sentence I was exhaling. All those stories, those faces, were waiting there patiently for me, just like those women would sit long hours in our waiting room with nowhere else to go. Within a month the first six chapters of the book were written in Faith’s voice. Like I once was, she is a legal counsellor at a women’s crisis centre. Like I found myself then, she has just about seen enough and had enough. She’s heard too many stories of love-gone-wrong, and has lost her faith in love. Nonetheless, I wanted this to be a story of redemption – though I wasn’t sure how I was going to pull that off. For one thing, depressed protagonists are hard to like. I’d recently read Alice Sebolds’s new book The Almost Moon and found it difficult because I just did not like the main character, Helen. I wanted people to love Faith. Because she did not love herself. I also knew it was going to be a hard idea to sell to my publisher – violence against women is not exactly a romantic set-up. Over the course of two months, I collected stories from the Australian press on child abuse, domestic violence and rape so that when I presented my proposal, the context spoke for itself. After several robust conversations and quite a bit of rewriting, Faith found her way into the world of fiction as the fragile soul who has been bludgeoned with one too many stories of ‘he-hit-me’. There was a little wrestle with my publisher about the book’s title, Things Without A Name. I wanted it to render the vascular silence of withheld emotion and unspoken loss through which Faith moves towards the hopeful whispered exclamation ‘… there is a name for this, what I’m feeling … I ust know there is a name for this.’ The title also echoes the feminist achievement in naming aspects of women’s experience that had previously been invisible: date rape, sexual harassment and femicide. Each chapter of the book is entitled with a simple noun to confirm the way in which language anchors us to meaning, and arguably creates meaning. If something has no name, how do we speak of it? Can we even say it exists? Finally, I made the decision early on to name all my characters after people who have lost their lives in gender violence. Right at the back there is section detailing in one or two sentences, the circumstances of each person’s death. Despite my publisher’s concerns about this inclusion because it might make readers ‘uncomfortable’ and is somewhat voyeuristic, it has remained, a signpost for those who choose to know the path I travelled through this book.Though this is a novel, I don’t want people to forget that Faith’s story took root in a place of real pain and human faces across the table from someone whose sister was stabbed to death with a pair of scissors.While I scrounged for something useful to say. Things Without a Name by Joanne Fedler is published by Allen & Unwin, rrp $32.95. I wanted people to love Faith. Because she did not love herself.